The M/C Review: ‘Holy Rollers’ is a quiet provocation

05.30.10 9 years ago

One of the hardest parts of covering a film festival is setting your priorities.  I know people who will only go see a film if it’s something they believe is going to get a theatrical release.  They figure their readers only care about films they’re going to get a chance to see.  Other people take the exact opposite approach, skipping movies they know they’ll see later in favor of obscure programming that might well disappear into a void.

I try to strike a balance between the familiar and the unfamiliar, the known and the unknown, and sometimes, I regret not seeing something when I get the chance.  At Sundance this year, I felt bad about missing “Holy Rollers,” but now it’s opening in limited release already and I got the chance to catch up with it.

Films about drug culture typically fall into one of two shapes.  Either they serve as cautionary tales about they toll that addiction takes, or they serve as cautionary tales about the dangers of dealing.  “Holy Rollers” is one of those “dangers of dealing” movies, a based-on-a-true-story about the rise and fall of an ecstasy smuggling ring from the late ’90s.  The thing that makes the story unique is the same thing that made them so effective as smugglers:  they used Hasidic Jews as their drug mules, correctly guessing no one would search or even suspect them.

Jesse Eisenberg has become a familiar face in the indie world, and although he’s certainly found a niche, I think he continues to impress with the way he plays variations on the nebbish archetype.  As Sam Gold, a young Hasidic Jew struggling to figure out his place in his community and the world at large, Eisenberg does solid work.  He makes an unlikely druglord, and the film traces his journey as he goes from having no awareness of the drug underworld to running a smuggling team of his own.  His gradual seduction into the lifestyle is charted in such a way that each of the bad choices he makes seems perfectly reasonable in context.

It helps that the two people most directly responsible for his slide into moral turpitude are strong enough personalities that it makes sense he’d be drawn to them.  Justin Bartha, who pretty much stole whatever scenes there were to steal in the “National Treasure” movies, plays Yosef Zimmerman.  From the very start of the film, it’s obvious that Yosef wants little to do with the conventions of his community.  He sees other Hasidic Jews as resources to exploit or hopeless suckers, and little else.  He’s the guy who projects the “I don’t care” attitude that Sam wishes he could master.  Ari Graynor, so good in last year’s “Nick And Norah’s Infinite Playlist,” plays Rachel Apfel, the party girl whose attention gives Sam the nerve to turn his back on the values taught to him by his parents.

The stuff about the drug smuggling is interesting, but it’s obvious that is not the primary focus of screenwriter Antonio Macia and director Kevin Asch.  They also don’t dwell on the idea of this as a period piece.  Instead, the focus here is on the tensions that exist when someone is raised in a very cloistered community, bristling against the rules that keep them apart from everyone else.  I wouldn’t call my parents wildly permissive, but they weren’t oppressively conservative, either.  Instead, they raised me with clearly established boundaries that gave me room for some hard-earned experience with a safety net.  I can’t imagine being raised in a harsh religious environment, but I can definitely understand both the desire to preserve cultural tradition and the need to break away.

At its best, “Holy Rollers” illustrates that push-me-pull-you with real sensitivity.  At its worst, the film rehashes a familiar formula.  It’s well-made, and cinematographer Ben Kutchins deserves special credit for the austere, moody look of the piece.  It’s a slight film, but there’s enough about it that works that I’m glad I saw it.

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