Writer and director Nijla Mumin demonstrates a lot of promise with her feature debut Jinn (2018), but, while there is a lot of good in this film, it is lacking in some key areas. The story structure, camera choices, and a dance number suffer from odd choices that detract from the important themes Mumin is addressing. However, the cast is led by Zoe Renee, who delivers a strong performance alongside Kelvin Harrison Jr.
Jinn has a lot to say but suffers from technical execution
Summer (Renee) finds herself torn between her desires and her newly found spirituality after her mother, Jade (Simone Missick), converts to Islam. Initially forced to participate, Summer seems to take a liking to the teachings, but finds they conflict with so many aspects of her life. Things become more complicated when she finds a connection with Tahir (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), a Muslim boy she knows from school.
Renee has a strong screen presence, and is definitely able to carry the film. She is expressive, and much like her character Summer, she is able to charm those she encounters. However, Summer’s story feels like either a lot of major story development ended up on the cutting room floor or was never written. It’s possible that this is a result of juggling both Jade’s issues with her conversion to Islam in addition to Summer’s conversion, even though the story seems to belong to Summer. There are major moments in the film that feel unearned or illogical, with no explanation being given. Even Summer’s sudden acceptance of Islam feels like we missed major moments, as she went from being mocking and dismissive of the idea of adopting it as part of her identity. This character element felt like a major absence in the movie, which leads to other issues later on.
The technical areas that were questionable center around Summer’s dancing. Even in terms of story, it seems like a major conflict should have been her art versus her spirituality, but it often feels like a side story. However, the bigger issue is how the dance sequences are framed. Early on, the camera work during their rehearsals feels like the cinematographer didn’t know what to capture, and was either in too close or utilizing jerky camera movements. Then, during a major dance scene late in the film, Mumin opts to use a non-diegetic song that doesn’t really match with the dancing, which could work in some cases, but given the amount of time spent building up the importance of the talent show, it felt like a missed pay-off opportunity.
Despite the shortcomings of the film, the concepts discussed are relevant and important. A coming of age story of a young African-American girl that deals with her spirituality, centered around Islam, offers a lot of rich narrative opportunities. The amount of intolerance both Jade and Summer have to deal with is there, as is the internal strife that a young, hip teenager about to go to college would have the culture clash. There is even an idea of social media and how it can negatively affect one’s lives. All good messages, but unfortunately not all executed as strongly as they could have been.
Ultimately, Jinn didn’t work as well as I had hoped. The premise is strong, and I’d hoped for a solid narrative experience. Either extending the film out to include those moments that were missing or thinning the story to focus on one strong arc would have made it more impactful. Despite that, there is definitely something worth seeing in the film, pushing it just barely into the Decent Watch rating area