Los Angeles weather anchor Jade Jennings (Simone Missick) feels empty. Her smile sags as soon as the camera pans away from another day of sun. The single mother wants more, so she visits a mosque, nervously ties on a head scarf, and announces that she’s converted to Islam. She’s sincere — at least, she swears she is, though her ex (Dorian Missick) notes with an eye-roll that when they first hooked up, she was “a New Age Black Panther and a Buddhist.”
Her metamorphosis seems based on an afternoon of watching YouTube videos about bombings and a need for community. Beams Jade, she also loves “the people, the lights, the smell, the prayer.” But “Jinn,” a phenomenal debut from writer-director Nijla Mu’min, isn’t Jade’s story. It’s her 17-year-old daughter Summer’s (an outstanding Zoe Renee), a high school senior just beginning to seek out her own identity when her mom thrusts one on her.
Forgive an early scene where a teacher asks the class to write an essay defining themselves. That’s the kind of state-your-thesis groaner that’s beneath this intelligent film, which won a special jury recognition for writing at SXSW. Thankfully, Summer never presents her answer to a cringeworthy slow clap. Honestly, she doesn’t know — and Mu’min spends the film giving her teen dancer the freedom to sketch vague boundaries, and erase the parts that don’t fit. Summer changes from scene to scene, first hitting on a lesbian pizza clerk (Arielle Saturne), and later, a devout Muslim named Tahir (Kelvin Harrison Jr.).
Her hair and clothes change, too, from dark curls to lilac-dyed sprigs, and exposed midriffs to modest skirts. Once, she tries on opposite looks at once, Instagramming a picture of herself in a bra and head wrap with the hashtag #HalalHottie. She’s not trying to be hypocritical. She’s just too new to her own sexual powers, and her religion, to realize she can’t embrace both extremes. Although, technically she just did, which means over the course of the film, Summer will continue layering different parts of her personality over each other to see if they fit — or try to blaze her own path.
Renee is incredible. She radiates joy without becoming cloying or false. Mu’min repeatedly describes Summer as a jinn, a shapeshifting spirit capable of good and evil. The metaphor gets wearisome, but Renee has a superhuman charisma. Mu’min lavishes her with close-ups; the camera is fascinated by Renee’s face. Yet the young actor makes audiences root for her while also allowing Summer to be rude and thoughtless. In a squabble with her dance team member Tati (Maya Morales), Summer goes straight for the jugular by mentioning Tati’s, um, popularity with the football players. Summer’s best friend (Ashlei Foushee) refuses to take her side. And once, after leaving the mosque, Summer spots the way the Imam (Hisham Tawfiq) flirts with her mom and accuses her of upending their world for a crush. (Never mind that her crush on Tahir means she’s doing the same thing.)
One reason Summer likes claiming to practice the faith is it ironically gives her more freedom among moms like Rasheedah who assume two Muslim kids won’t smooch in a closed bedroom. The film itself is even more tolerant. “Jinn” is the rare coming-of-age story that doesn’t simply pat kids on the head and tell them they just need to love themselves. Instead, Mu’min holds her characters accountable for the way they discombobulate each other’s lives, while giving them the space to do better, if they can figure out what better is. Here’s one answer: cinema is better with fresh talents like Mu’min and Renee. It’s exciting to watch them sketch their own futures.