A selection at Sundance earlier this year, period piece drama Holy Rollers lifts a veil on Jewish Orthodoxy and reveals a world where — shock of shocks — religious adolescents aren’t immune to doubt and desire and even behavior that contradicts their own sense of self. Unlike the recent Happiness Runs, another skewed sort of coming-of-age tale, Holy Rollers takes filtered, subjective truth and drug experimentation and spins it into something personal and woozy and idiosyncratic, yet still relatable to an outside audience without much of a deeper knowledge or rooting interest in its subcultural milieu.
Directed by Kevin Asch, from a screenplay by Antonio Macia, the film is inspired by actual events in the late 1990s when Hasidic Jews were recruited as mules to smuggle ecstasy from Europe into the United States. Jesse Eisenberg stars as Sam Gold, a young Hasid from a tight-knit Brooklyn community who is nervously following the carefully prescribed path laid out for him by his family, which includes studying to become a rabbi, working with his garment dealer father, Mendel (Mark Ivanir), and awaiting the final confirmation of a pending arranged marriage to Zeldy (Stella Keitel, daughter of Harvey and Lorraine Bracco). At this time, Sam falls under the sway of the charming older brother, Yosef (Justin Bartha), of his good friend and neighbor, Leon Zimmerman (Jason Fuchs).
Yosef taps Sam to help him transport “medicine” for Jackie Solomon (Danny Abeckaser, above left), an Israeli dealer who operates under the guise of an import-export business. (Yosef’s amusing advice for a nervous Sam: “Relax, mind your business, and act Jewish.”) Crunching numbers on the fly, Sam quickly demonstrates his business acumen to his new boss, who takes Sam under his wing. As he showcases his increasing indispensability to Jackie, Sam finds his heady exposure to the respective nightlife worlds of Manhattan and Amsterdam, which he frequents for travel, to be both exciting and corrosive. As the business grows and his family starts to become suspicious of his illegal activities, Sam grapples with a not-exactly-discouraged burgeoning attraction to Jackie’s girlfriend Rachel (Ari Graynor, above right), and slowly comes to realize the unstable nature of the façade related to all this easy money. Caught between life as a smuggler and the path back to God, Sam has no easy answers, but instead only tough choices.
Eisenberg is an actor who, ever since bursting onto the scene in 2002’s precious, somewhat contrived Roger Dodger, has induced in me a not completely explicable exasperation. He suffered a terrible wig in Cursed, which would’ve failed irrespective of his involvement. And I’ve actually legitimately dug a couple films in which he’s appeared, most notably The Hunting Party and Adventureland; while it would be snide and neither fair nor totally true to say I enjoyed them in spite of his presence, they haven’t exactly been actorly triumphs, in my view. I’ve tolerated Jesse Eisenberg, in other words, waiting for him to give me something different, something less mannered and obvious than the same stammering nice guy wallflower of whom he’s played various iterations.
Holy Rollers is the film that finally shows a glimpse of something different. It’s not jaw-droppingly revelatory, but Eisenberg’s attuned performance showcases the slow bleed of secularism into Sam’s distinctly ethnic patter, and when he propositions elopement with Rachel in fitful fashion late in the movie, it plays as both a mock come-on from a guy who doesn’t know from flirting as well as heartbreakingly real.
Debut feature director Asch keeps the tone relaxed and real, so that one has an appreciation of the sincerity of Sam’s faith without it becoming a smothering trait. In portraying the difficulty with which Sam stands astride two worlds, increasingly at odds, the movie doesn’t implicitly choose a side, and the audience is the ultimate winner in the adaptation of this unlikely true story, which richly captures all the befuddlement of youth, albeit in some circumstances of extreme duress. (First Independent, R, 89 minutes)