Imran J. Khan’s Coming Of Age Comedy Comes Up Short With Its Supporting Cast [SXSW]

Mar 19, 2023

Every instance of abject grief, embarrassment, disappointment, and failure known only by teenage boys can be sourced to cosmological forces beyond their control or to a bummer ticket in the biological lottery. Imran J. Khan’s first feature, “Mustache,” opts to merge the two under the same awkward umbrella. If a lad can be betrayed by his own body, then certainly it’s within the universe’s power to provoke that betrayal, laying the groundwork for early body image issues dovetailing with hormonal, emotional, and cultural issues simultaneously. It’s one thing to grow unsightly facial hair and another for your folks to forbid you from shaving it.
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Life isn’t fair. Ilyas (Atharva Verma), “Mustache’s” lead, finds that life is incredibly unfair to him, growing up Muslim in a Pakistani-American household, surrounded by his ambivalent siblings, who consider his problems nuisances and don’t take them or him seriously and closely governed by his strict father, Hameed (Rizwan Manji). By comparison, his mother, Asiya (Meesha Shafi), is permissive. Later in the film, we find that she used to be an artist; later still, Ilyas asks her why she stopped painting, and in her curt, trim response, we get the kind of depth that Khan’s supporting cast broadly lack. It’s the moment where “Mustache” comes closest to fully realizing Ilyas’ world and giving it ballast, weight, anecdotes, and details about the characters he interacts with throughout the movie’s slim running time.
The restrictions on Khan’s ensemble hold “Mustache” back from potential greatness. Ilyas is well-defined, both in writing and in Verma’s performance, as gawky, hesitant, and isolated from the community; he wants to be good, but he also wants out of life what he’s proscribed by his background. Being a good Muslim takes grit and determination, at least for a 13-year-old. It means self-denial, which for a high school-aged kid means avoiding participation in most of the same activities as his peers. That sucks. Ilyas could probably tolerate growing out his sparse and scrappy lip foliage if that’s all that living up to the “good Muslim” appellation required. But it requires so much more, and he wants more out of his teen years than he’s afforded.
“Mustache” tows its plot out of Ilyas’ experience. Sick to death of his classmates’ japes, Ilyas gets into a scuffle with another student at the Islamic private school he attends; he’s a participant in the fight but isn’t responsible for starting it. Unfortunately for him, school administrators don’t care as much about who creates it and who they can most casually punish. Hence, they take away his scholarship as a consequence of his actions. Without the scholarship, the Islamic school is beyond Hameed’s financial reach. Only one thing to do: plop Ilyas into public school, and leave him fuzzy on the details. He doesn’t have to know why. He just has to realize he fumbled the bag, and this is what you get when you can’t handle the daily rigors of good Muslimhood. 
Parents just don’t understand. This is as true today as in 1988. “Mustache” parallels Ilyas’ struggles with family and faith against Hameed’s; Hameed carries the burden of providing for his family in the era of dotcom calamity, where the only certainty is that the Internet’s bubble has burst and he’s right in the splash zone. But he’s conflicted as a Muslim man, too, even if Khan only goes so far as to suggest Hameed’s worries when he could dramatize them instead. The industry usually acknowledges Manji as a comic actor with a range spanning “simpering” and “foolish.” “Mustache” gives him the chance to escape that pigeonhole. He seizes it with a sense of purpose. Even at his harshest, Hameed means for the best. Manji sets aside severity for the kind of disappointment every parent knows well because the disappointment collides with their hopes for and love for their children. 
Hameed wants Ilyas to discover himself. He’s also accustomed to a framework that restricts self-discovery, which is why Ilyas plots his own downward spiral; he figures that if he causes enough trouble, Hameed and Asiya will have no choice but to yank him out of public school and put him back in private school. A short but effective montage of his various plans in action tells us a couple of essential details about the kid: He’s not that good at being bad – passing off a bag of oregano as weed, replacing a Big Mac with a halal burger but forgetting to toss the packaging – and Khan is very, very good at hitting punchlines using standard setups, tuned to the particulars of a Muslim upbringing. “Mustache” is unfailingly funny, alternating between fond chuckles and big belly laughs and succeeding, and without losing the specificity needed to ground its cultural mores. 
But the movie misses opportunities to leverage Khan’s wonderful secondary cast and to give their characters their due. They do the most with the least or with very little, which in fairness, is to their credit. All the same, for the significance they have in Ilyas’ life, they read as outlines when they ought to read as people. Grant that “Mustache” is his story and not theirs. Grant also that Hameed’s story informs Ilyas’ story and that Khan and Manji tease out enough of what makes Hameed tick to justify better development. Still, “Mustache” does its job. It gives Ilyas catalysts for growth other than the cookie duster hanging out under his nose, and the writing invites us to laugh with him, not at him because it’s one thing to laugh and another thing to sneer. We’ve all been where Ilyas is. “Mustache” simply provides a fresh context for the “where.” [C+]
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