The feature debut of editor and short filmmaker Imran J. Khan, Mustache is a grounded coming-of-age story bursting with authenticity, even if the film feels at times like a retread of other awkward high school experiences captured in cinema. With a dry, competitive tone, Mustache accurately captures the emotion of being right in the middle of a problem that feels like an insurmountable, life-changing challenge for a child.
Atharva Verma stars as Ilyas, a Pakistani teen growing up in San Jose whose main issue is that he sprouted a mustache at age ten, leading to some awkward class photos at his Islamic grade school. He’s thrown out after 8th grade when he starts a fight and his scholarship is pulled. Thus his working-class parents, former artist mother (Meesha Shafi) and computer salesman father Hameed (Rizwan Manji), decide to send him to the local public high school to start his freshman year, leading to some awkward conversations about coming of age.
Ilyas is a bit of a walking contradiction, having a somewhat limited knowledge of the world mostly informed by sci-fi movies his brother shows him; he equates both the Islamic idea of “The Day of Judgement” with Terminator 2 and wet dreams with one of his favorite films, Stargate. As a rebel he seems spiritually in line with Max Fischer of Rushmore, although the film––set in the mid-90s when all teen communication after school seemed to flow through AOL Instant Messenger––takes a place a few years earlier.
Playing the long game to get back to his private school, Ilyas teams up with new friend Arun (Krishna Manivannan) to try his hand at rebellion within limits. In one instance he buys a McDonald’s burger to freak out his family, being sure to replace the burger patty with Halal meat lest he incur a higher wrath. When that fails, he concocts a fake relationship over IM with Liz (Melody Cao), a real classmate whom he may actually have feelings for; predictably, it ends with a broken heart. It’s because of her he decides to sit in on an acting class led by Miss Martin (played by real 1990s teen star, Alicia Silverstone).
An imperfect film with beats not unlike other works about outsiders finding their way, Mustache feels a little uneven with some characters, including Ilyas’ parents, registering as underdeveloped. An issue is the perspective: despite the presence of voiceover, the film is told largely in the present tense without the benefit of an adult Ilyas framing just how silly this all feels years removed. Still, the film is a compassionate portrait of a young man finding his place in several communities with a rigorous support system of mentors and family members in place. I just wish writer-director Khan would have given us a little more time with the rich ensemble around him.
Mustache premiered at SXSW 2023.