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Reel Asian 2023: 'Mustache' Reinvents the Bildungsroman

Courtesy of Toronto Reel Asian International Film Festival

Imran J. Khan’s Mustache follows a familiar trajectory — a young boy faces hard times after starting at a new school, but, after various ill-fated though comical plots, he ultimately comes to terms with himself and his new friends. But despite its fairly simple trajectory, the film is charming and weighty, soaring where others of its ilk have tanked for the simple reason that it meaningfully paints a picture of what it looks like to grow into oneself as a first-generation immigrant.

Atharv Verma is Illyas, a 13-year-old Pakistani-American boy who has a visible moustache that his parents refuse to let him shave — “It’ll grow back darker,” his father Hameed (Rizwan Manji) advises him. Illyas attends an Islamic private school in California and though he’s not the most popular kid in school — he is actually a very average kid, quiet and weird, super into Star Trek — he likes his school. When his parents pull him from the private school and send him to the local public school after an altercation, Illyas embarks on a quest to get his parents to send him back to the safety and familiarity of Islamic school. If his parents find that public school has made him stray from the path of a good Muslim boy, then his parents won’t have any other choice than to change their minds, Illyas reasons. Thus, Illyas tumbles down a hilarious road to apparent self-destruction, trying to do the most haram things he possibly can.

Khan directs his own script with impeccable comedic timing that he shrewdly balances against substantial ideas of what it means to grow up as a South Asian kid in America. Questions of identity and fitting in are given added weight in Mustache as Illyas deals not only with his pubescent age, but also communal expectations, duty to his siblings, and the specific colour of his hair against the specific colour of his skin. Khan shrewdly balances Illyas’ narrative at a uniquely complex but deeply familiar intersection, and from there handles the young boy’s trials and tribulations with the kindness it deserves.

On par with cultural milestones such as Clueless, Booksmart, and Eighth Grade, Mustache is smart, searing, and tender as it takes the traditional bildungsroman to the next level. The film offers no clean answers or solutions to Illyas’ unique situation — there is no clear and decipherable roadmap given to guide him out of his situation as a young boy of colour dealing with hormones and high school. The film understands that there is no right way to be a teenager, to deal with one’s parents and siblings in a way that is kind enough, to deal with school and crushes in a way that is cool enough. Rather, the film, through dry humour delivered against raw moments in perfect measure, provides a fascinating and charming multiplicity of roads, various ways to survive that are present not just in the tween characters, but also in the adults Illyas is surrounded by, his parents and teachers alike. The film is a trailblazer for this reason.

Brilliantly helmed, stunningly performed, and perfectly paced, Mustache is a rich achievement. This is an unmissable coming of age tale for a new generation of North Americans.


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