You can practically taste it in Nijla Mu’min’s “Jinn” when Summer (Zoe Renee) takes her first bite of beef pepperoni at a halal pizza joint, the grease trickling down her throat and the salt punching through, as she rummages through her mind to compare it to all the other pizza she’s had growing up in Los Angeles. Mu’min doesn’t make a big moment of this – you can tell everything from Summer’s vivid expression as she swirls the pepperoni around in her mouth, her date Tahir (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) waiting to see what she thinks – but it is significant as one of many small things she has had to reconsider that she’s never given much thought to before. It is Mu’jin’s gift to extend these small shifts in perception to the audience in “Jinn,” a coming-of-age story that cleverly walks a fine line of familiarity and foreignness to echo the experience a young woman who adopts the Muslim faith, changing the way she lives, while the world around her stays the same.
The choice to become a Muslim is only somewhat Summer’s to make, with her mother Jade (Simone Missick) having recently undergone a spiritual awakening and after choosing which mosque she’ll attend, she gingerly takes steps towards going public with her new identity. Summer is encouraging at first, not batting an eyelash when her mother considers going bald, even with an image to maintain on the local TV news where she works as a meteorologist, and becomes interested in pursuing the faith herself, though Mu’min is clever to show it isn’t necessarily for the same reasons as Jade finds freedom in newfound spirituality while her daughter might enjoy having more structure in her life in the wake of her parents’ divorce. Each find themselves in a moment where they don’t have a strong sense of self and a complicated mother-daughter relationship grows even more complex when they don’t entirely know what to do with what they’re taking in as a new faith, with Jade wielding her conversion to Islam as a catch-all defense against some of her daughter’s (valid) criticisms of her recent parenting and Summer seeing how a hijab can bring her attention, not fully considering the consequences, particularly when she starts dating Tahir, whose observant parents already have plans for him.
Religion is, in some ways, a form of rebellion for both at a moment when neither have a strong sense of self and while it’s energizing to watch Jade and Summer grow, the real sparks fly in how Mu’min captures how those paths might not necessarily align. The writer/director also makes great use of the tension in her own uneasy relationship with narrative convention, making “Jinn” accessible as an engaging melodrama, but fluidly incorporating stream-of-consciousness digressions that remind of “Lemonade” or its antecedent, Julie Dash’s “Daughters of the Dust” to let you see the world as Summer does, though these sensory explosions reassert authenticity rather than feel derivative. In a story in which Summer is constantly attempting to wrest control over her identity instead of letting others define it for her, the ingrained sense that she has some authorship over her own narrative is all too perfect, and while Summer’s only gradually asserts her command, “Jinn” does so from its very first frame.