Review by Sean Boelman
Coming-of-age movies are commonplace at festivals, as many directors tell their own stories in their directorial debut. Irman J. Khan’s Mustache is never able to ascend above the genre’s limitations, but Khan’s unique perspective is welcome and makes the film something special despite its conventionality.
The film follows a Pakistani-American boy in ‘90s suburban California, as he is forced to adjust to the challenges of a new public school. The comparisons are obvious — with one of the clearest being “Muslim Lady Bird” given the similarities in time period and location — but Mustache largely has a charm of its own.
The film’s beats play out in a very predictable, expected way, but it’s charming nonetheless. There are also plenty of jokes in the script (some culturally specific and others more broad) that keep the film feeling buoyant. At a lean eighty minutes, it’s mostly without filler and doesn’t overstay its welcome.
As one would expect, the film deals with many of the common themes of adolescence: struggling to fit in, first experiences with romance and sexuality, bullying, and other common issues that teenagers face. However, Khan’s script feels so wonderfully personal that it’s difficult to deny its charm.
One of the things that stands out about the film — which will allow it to overcome some of the limitations of its conventional narrative — is its fantastic representation. There have been plenty of coming-of-age stories like this, but not many representing the culture of Muslim-Americans. As a result, it is able to feel refreshing even though it isn’t particularly original.
The film’s supporting cast includes supporting turns from recognizable faces like Rizwan Manji and Alicia Silvertone, as well as a cameo from Hasan Minhaj. Silverstone’s performance, in particular, is interesting — as it brings her career full-circle from starting as a teenager in a classic high school movie to now mentoring in the next generation.
One thing that would have been nice would have been to see a bit more stylistic flair in the film. There are certain sequences that have more personality than others — such as a few scenes in which the protagonist is having letters written to him — but for the most part, it’s shot in a straightforward way like most other coming-of-age movies.
Mustache benefits from great representation and an enormously personal take on familiar genre beats. Although it is never able to break out beyond its conventions, it’s a worthy addition to the genre if only because it gives the spotlight to an all-too-frequently underrepresented group.
Mustache is screening at the 2023 SXSW Film Festival, which runs March 10-18 in Austin, TX.