One of the best things about indie films is that we often get to see stories from real people who live in completely different realities and learn details from their routines. In that context, even the most ordinary and cliché events may feel fresh, and the story is frequently a joy to follow. That’s the case with Mustache, a coming-of-age comedy that depends entirely on its lead young actor to work — and it does, most of the time.

Mustache centers around Ilyas (Atharva Verma), a 13-year-old Pakistani-American boy who’s living his absolute nightmare in mid-90s Northern California: After a school incident caused by himself, his parents decided to move Ilyas from private to public school. He knows no one there, isn’t prepared to navigate it, and, to make things worse, he has a distinct mustache that his mother won’t let him shave off. How can a kid survive a hostile school environment with that on his face?

The best thing about Mustache – and one of director/screenwriter Imran J. Khan’s best ideas — is to quickly come up with a montage of Ilyas’ upper lip and close-ups of facial hair that perfectly convey the main character’s insecurities. With a simple, 2-second shot, the movie is able to constantly remind us what’s going on in Ilyas’ mind and make us relate to his behavior. Not that we need that shot to relate to the story: We all had that one thing (or more) that made us insecure about our appearance during high school. In Ilyas’ case, changing schools means having to learn how to navigate a whole new ecosystem of people who will make fun of his mustache. That’s why he starts hatching a plan to get back to his old school as soon as possible.

Trusting a young actor to carry your film is always a bold choice, but also can reveal some impressive new talent to the world. Verma is certainly a standout who’s able to convey vulnerability while delivering a fun performance that makes us eager to see how he’ll handle every scene. There’s also a surprising range for how Verma portrays Ilyas’ insecurities and naïveté in different situations: Just observe his demeanor when talking to his friend online, when in front of his parents and during drama club. It’s the kind of subtle performance that you don’t normally see in child actors.

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At the same time, it’s a little frustrating that Mustache doesn’t take the time to fully flesh out what it is like to walk in the shoes of a teenage boy who thinks he’s perceived as an alien. Due to its short runtime (the movie runs just a little under 80 minutes), it’s noticeable that a lot of the connections that Ilyas forms throughout the story had to be cut or watered down. Which is a shame, because the potential for each interaction is clearly there, especially among the teenage cast. Think what The Perks of Being a Wallflower would be if someone cut about 25 minutes from it.

The short runtime also makes Mustache severely underuse Alicia Silverstone and Hasan Minhaj. Silverstone does what she can to stand out as a drama teacher who greatly improves Ilyas’ perception of himself, but all we get are tidbits from a relationship that is more implied than shown. Minhaj, on the other hand, doesn’t even get much chance to shine, since his participation is a little more than a cameo.

However, Khan is also able to operate small miracles in a limited runtime. Mustache is pretty effective in showing how parents can be cruel to their kids and demand from them a behavior they weren’t even taught in the first place. Ilyas and his siblings are raised in an environment in which conversation is practically nonexistent and emotions aren’t discussed. This is a pretty good depiction of the average household in the mid-90s, and the fact that all of that culminates in Ilyas expressing his emotions in the most unconventional way possible perfectly encapsulates that turning point where 90s kids had to get to know themselves through their own efforts.

Mustache also perfectly conveys the quiet desperation of kids who were forced to follow a pre-determined set of rules with little to no liberty of doing anything else. For many of us, our personalities and “paths” got determined before we even understood what those words meant. Getting out from under this and discovering who you really are and what you like is a Herculean task for a teenager, and a journey which makes you feel guilty every step of the way. So, it makes perfect sense (cinematography-wise) that, even though Mustache is a comedy at its core, you’ll never get a fully bright moment, and the inside of Ilyas’ house is frequently dark and uninviting.

Mustache is a greatly enjoyable ride that, albeit too short, is able to make valid points about getting raised in the mid-90s, a time when most parents weren’t really concerned about their kids’ mental health — or their own, for that matter. The young cast helps elevate the comedy, but sadly the deeper conversations and relationships between the characters are never truly fleshed out. Nonetheless, it makes you hyped to see what both director Imran J. Khan and lead star Atharva Verma will do next.

Rating: B+

Mustache premiered at the SXSW Film Festival.

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