Reel Asian Film Festival 2023: 'Mustache' Brings Warm and Fuzzy Softness to Hairy Teenage Moments

Directed by Imran J. Khan

Starring Atharva Verma, Rizwan Manji, Meesha Shafi, Melody Cao, Armaan Jawandha, Ayana Manji, Krishna Manivannan, Hasan Minhaj, Alicia Silverstone

Photo courtesy of Reel Asian Film Festival

BY Rachel HoPublished Nov 23, 2023

Through the eyes of young Ilyas (Atharva Verma), audiences are brought back to the emotional roller coaster that is high school in an assured feature directorial debut from Imran J. Khan. In Mustache, Ilyas shares in adolescence's rites of passage — unwanted body hair, unrequited love, unnecessary teasing — he also contends with how to be a young Muslim in America.

After being pulled out from Islamic private school, Ilyas faces a new reality in public school, where he experiences an isolation never felt before. Following a hilarious sequence of attempting to fool his parents into thinking public school has cultivated a love of non-halal McDonald's Big Macs and explicit music, Ilyas begins to settle into his new school after finding a surprising love for drama class.

As with the best coming-of-age films, there is a universality to its specificity — and in this case, it's a specificity not often seen in the genre, or in cinema in general. Khan weaves together a story that will undoubtedly be felt by Muslims who grew up in North America and for whom religious obligations and familial expectations contrasted the typically-Christian norms of their environments. For the rest of us, the challenges (and triumphs) Ilyas navigates are still familiar; the desire to belong and be understood truly knows no bounds.

In large part, Khan's script establishes the heartfelt nature of Mustache, but it's Verma's earnest performance that compels audiences. There's a softness to Verma's turn that brings to mind the inherent innocence that childhood imparts, but what makes Ilyas so engaging is the burgeoning teenagehood within him that's screaming to come out. Bright-eyed and vulnerable, Verma balances Ilya's outwardly quiet nature with that loud internal desire to grow — something he conveys with the skill of a seasoned actor. 

For all the discussion of inclusion and diversity in Hollywood, the coming-of-age film stands to benefit the most given its younger target demographic. Where many of us worked (however subconsciously) to see ourselves in the She's All Thats and Stand By Mes of the genre, a new generation of filmmakers like Khan are creating films where their own stories are voiced and heard — no extra credit required. 

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