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In ‘Jinn,’ a young, black Muslim woman finds her spirit amid cultural restraints

Charles Ealy

Young, black Muslim-Americans are not often featured in American cinema, so writer/director Nijla Mu’min’s directorial debut, “Jinn,” is a welcome change. It’s in the narrative feature competition at South by Southwest, where it made its premiere Sunday.

Mu’min, who’s from the East Bay area of California, is exploring the coming-of-age of a somewhat-reluctant young Muslim woman named Summer (Zoe Renee), who loves eating pepperoni pizza, flirting with other women her age — and dancing.

Her Muslim affiliations are relatively recent because her mother, Jade (Simone Missick), is a new convert to Islam. Jade works at a Los Angeles TV station as the weather anchor, and she’s successful. But when she decides to convert, she wonders whether she should wear a hijab on TV.

Summer, who’s ebullient and ready to take on the world, tells her mother that she should wear it if she wishes, because “she’ll rock” any style.

But you can tell that trouble is brewing between mother and daughter. Summer is a wild spirit, or what’s called a jinn in the Arabic world. The movie “Jinn” is named for such supernatural beings that are made of smokeless flame. In Islamic mythology, they occupy another world and have free will. And Summer finds this mythology relevant as she explores sexuality, religion and, above all, dance and choreography.

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The notion of being a jinn appeals to Summer in part because it lets her move easily between her mother’s religious world and her father’s secular world. The parents are divorced, but the father still plays a role in Summer’s life.

But the big issues for Summer evolve, especially when she begins to have feelings for one of her male classmates, a devout Muslim, Tahir (Kevin Harrison Jr.).

All of this plays out in ways that you might expect. But the problems that Summer faces as she comes of age in a secular Los Angeles while trying to be a Muslim lead to interesting observations about all the obstacles that minorities have to navigate.

Renee gives an exciting performance as Summer, who has plenty of dance moves that she’s been working on for years in anticipation of a competition. Will she wear the hijab for that performance? How will that work out with the judges? And will the overtly sexual and athletic dance moves really mesh with a hijab?

You’ll find out if you watch “Jinn.” It’s about how a young spirit can break through the various cultural restraints teens face. And in that regard, “Jinn” is a winner.

“Jinn” premiered Sunday at the State Theatre. It screens again at 11:45 a.m. March 12 at the Alamo South Lamar and 2:30 p.m. March 15 at the Alamo South Lamar. Grade: B