2018’s rife with surprising films running the gamut of genres, styles, and realities. Madeline’s Madeline, Sorry To Bother You, Mandy, and The Endless, to name of a few, are among those that took something basic and turned it into magic. Get ready to add another to the list with writer/director Nijla Mu’min’s second feature film, Jinn, which is equal parts straight narrative and visual poetry mixed together to create an emotional powerful, visually stunning introspective journey.
Los Angeles teen Summer (Zoe Renee) has all the typical worries of a high school senior: how many likes did her posts receive, where is her college acceptance letter, and what style best fits her that day. This all changes when Summer’s mother, Jade Jennings (Simone Missick), converts to Islam, bringing her new-found faith into their home. In an attempt to remain close to her mother, Summer agrees to convert as well, but a profound schism emerges as Summer finds that the person she is versus the person her mother wants her to be are radically different. As Summer struggles to reobtain equilibrium, a possibility emerges: what if she could be more than one thing? What if she were a shapeshifter? A jinn?
Digging into Mu’min’s Jinn requires not just an open mind, but an open heart as well and a willingness to observe not just the physical representation of the world, but the emotions emanating from every piece of the frame. Jinn is the collective manifestation of the each character’s emotional perspectives thanks to composition by Jesi Nelson (Saving Brinton), cinematography by Bruce Francis Cole, and phenomenal costuming and set design. In the beginning of the film, Summer is shown both riding her bike and dancing, her representation different in each intercut scene. As she rides her bike, she appears akin to a spirit gliding down the street; whereas, while dancing, she is a concentrated force of kinetic energy. In contrast, the audience is also shown Jade as she prepares for work, the tone restrained, solemn, and reserved. This introduction quickly keys the audience in that Summer’s mother is weighted down in contrast to Summer who is an untempered soul. Accompanying the staging, Nelson’s light, uplifting, often fantastical airy composition for Summer defers from the deeper tones that accompany Jade signifying the inner conflict at play. In every case, Nelson’s score enables the audience to peer into the hearts of Mu’min’s characters to uncover their truths. A similar technique is applied to both the look of the actors and their set locations. Summer’s hair jumps between vibrant reds and deep blues throughout her curls to dollops of pink or aquamarine in the tips. This is done with no sense of time or purpose other than to demonstrate Summer’s naturally shifting tones, desires, and ideas. Likewise, her scenes are often lit with similar colors, accentuating Summer’s radiating energy in a naturalistic, elemental fashion. Conversely, Jade is dressed in golds, blacks, or emerald greens: regal colors, certainly, but lacking in the same color degradation of Summer. Rather, Jade is typical monochromatic and the scenes she’s in are given similar shading or back-lighting so that the colors seem to bounce off, but not always penetrate into Jade. Considering the dialogue from Summer paints her mother as constantly on the hunt for new ideas, experiences, or challenges, the very ideals Summer actualizes every day, to see Jade presented in such a singular fashion is undeniably telling. To have the narrative contextualized through all the pieces of Jinn make it living, breathing poetry.
If Jinn’s subtle approach doesn’t catch your heart, the performances from the cast most certainly will. Undoubtedly, the audience will become so enamored, so enthralled, by these performances that the joys will engender smiles and laughter and the turmoil will instill torment. Fans of the Netflix series Luke Cage are already aware of Missick’s ability to switch between tender and callous smoothly, but this performance is so heavily layered by the character’s internal turmoil, a lifelong search for acceptance and love, that even when Jade lashes out at Summer for even a perceived slight against the mosque Jade attends, the audience can’t help but view it with a form of compassion. Jade isn’t a bad mother, merely an individual continually struggling to find her place in the world. In her first feature length film, Renee holds her own as if this was her thousandth performance; an absolute natural with the capability to entrance the audience and command their attention with a mere glance or line delivery. Renee’s Summer is the core of the film and the performance she gives is one of the year’s best. In many respects, it’s an effortless performance as Renee captures the enormous highs and lows that accompany being a teen as well as one who is grappling with an ever-shifting foundation. In particular, Renee’s natural charisma makes the already magnetic Summer feel like a vortex, pulling everything toward her with great force or blowing them back with authority. Where some stories of awakening make the lead seem lost or weak, Renee imbues Summer with a natural strength that she tries to redefine as the story plays out. Rounding out the cast in varying roles are Dorian Missick (Lucky Number Slevin) as Summer’s father, David; Kelvin Harrison, Jr., (It Comes At Night) as Tahir, a boy from her school; Kelly Jenrette (Grandfathered) as Tahir’s mother Rasheedah; Ashlei Foushee and Maya Morales (The Girl With No Brain) as Summer’s friends and dance partners, Blaine and Tati; and Hisham Tawfiq (The Blacklist) as Iman Khalid, the leader of Jade’s mosque. Like a ballad which requires shifting tones and rhythms to feel fresh, each of these performers contribute to Mu’min’s organic narrative melody. They each flow in and out of the story in ways that service Summer’s journey, acting as hindrances as the script requires, sure, but never in a manner which feels inorganic. Whether it’s to reinforce Summer’s initial stereotypes about the Islamic faith or to be the physical manifestation of change she needs to view the complexities of the world without judgement, each actor maintains a persistent authenticity. Harrison, Jr., particularly as Summer’s friend and love interest, balances an inherently complex role due to the social and philosophical differences that the characters of Tahir and Summer possess, and he does so with wit and charm.
The only thing that brings the whole of Jinn down is a singular moment toward the conclusion that feels performative in its inclusion. It serves as a means of addressing the Summer-Jade conflict for the narrative, yet feels awkward in its placement. That said, without question, Jinn is one of the best films of 2018. It’s not just how it addresses Islamophobia in a compelling B-plot or how it constructs the narrative around a complex mother-daughter relationship. It’s how Summer, a young black girl who plans to study dance in college, who owns the dance floor, who must maintain a strong sense of self in order to express herself through her instrument, at 17, is able to recognize that her greatest strength is her complexity. That while being a part of a community, an organization, or a crew may bring an individual companionship, relinquishing your whole self to one thing doesn’t always equate to strength. Rather, by being malleable in spirit and adaptable in body, the wonders of the world remain open.
In theaters November 15, 2018 and available on VOD and digital November 16, 2018.
Final Score: 4.5 out of 5.