Holy Rollers is a crime story, but bursting through this veneer is a coming of age story about a young man’s gnawing identity crisis versus his family image.
The story begins in the most remote place in the biggest city—the Jewish Hasidic community of New York. The scenes in the beginning are very close, cramped in tiny apartments; friends act like brothers, siblings quarrel and bargain, parents dote and threaten all in the tiny spaces of time before sitting down to eat together. Even the houses are so close, our hero Sam Gold can watch his neighbor’s television through his own bedroom window.
By contrast, the one-sheet (poster) for the movie is an impressionistic frame of two guys running toward us on the Brooklyn Bridge; in the audience Q&A, first-time director Kevin Asch said it was taken directly from his own experience taking ecstasy at the age of 17.
Asch, himself a reform Jew, shows a profound respect for the Hasidic community and religious life they lead. Jesse Eisenberg (The Squid and the Whale, Zombieland) plays Sam Gold, a young man ogling a potential betrothed and also debating his career choice (the Rabbi-track, always a favorite with family and young women looking for their “mensch”). At the same time, he is ashamed of his family’s lack of money and importance, worried that this will not go unnoticed by the beautiful girl he wants to marry. According to custom, they do not touch, or speak much at all. He receives the blessing from his Rabbi, but either the girl or her family gets cold feet—based on the two-sentence conversation of his ... life goals? poverty? or rumors? We’re never told directly.
Holy Rollers is inspired by the true crime of Hasidic Jews transporting ecstasy from Europe to the states in the 1990s. His neighbor and older brother to his best friend Leon, Josef (Justin Bartha), asks Sam if he wants another job on the side, transporting special medicine. “I work for my father,” seems to be Sam’s final answer and explanation. But the adventure of overseas travel is too tempting, so he tries it out. And he likes it. In fact, something about the financial efficiency suits his aggressive youth far better than the subtle mind-games of selling fabric to New Yorkers in his father’s store. Learning that the “special medicine” for rich people is illegal drugs is only a speed-bump on the way to earning power and sense of masculinity; he becomes his own mensch, with some great sneakers.
Some story elements follow the predictable rise and fall of a drug story, but this is not a drug movie, and just barely a crime movie. There is the surrogate family in the boss Jackie Solomon (Danny Abeckaser) and his girlfriend Rachel (Ari Graynor) who like him rather quickly, and take him under their wings. Of course they drown in their excesses of greed, and escape into self-delusions. But this is still a different movie.
Aspiring filmmakers can take note: Well-worn plot conventions do not always take away from the very personal story. Holly Rollers works because of the careful way in which Asch sets up the beginning, especially in the social pressures of the “arranged” marriage, which functions more like a public try-out. Then, the job of transporting drugs feels like an authentic solution to his shame, which is not really based in greed or self-glory. As you can see in the Coen Bros.’s A Serious Man, the loaded expectations of the term “mensch” are powerful weapons, especially when uttered by Jewish women. We are somehow happy for him, without too much guilt.
Still, some of the best scenes depict the inner struggle of a Hasidic Jew confronting the garish secular world of dance clubs, casual touching and kissing, and of course drug use. Such moments are visually savored with expert editing and cinematography, amplifying the heart-pounding anxiety in Sam. He takes measures to leave his traditions behind, but then his faith surprises him, gracefully. A random, friendly orthodox Jew accosts Sam on the street with an offer to pray with him. Sam gratefully accepts, and receives help in strapping the tefillin (those little leather boxes containing Torah) to his body and share prayers.
Asch and Eisenberg are so sure-footed in their storytelling, you must remind yourself that Holy Rollers is a first-time effort for Asch. Credit also goes to the near flawless performances in the supporting cast, which includes a scene with Q-Tip; both Hasidic and secular characters make this movie feel so much bigger than the tiny $1 million budget.
Another filmmaker might exploit such an Old World / Secular World opportunity to jump into that romantic cliché where two young lovers are oppressed by their orthodox parentage (a la Romeo & Juliet and nearly everything since). The marriage that takes place instead is believable, even sensible, and hurts Sam Gold all the more. The storytelling innovation here is that Asch takes the community at their word, fearful and oppressive as it might be in brief moments, and tells a coming-of-age story that traverses the globe to the depravity of Amsterdam, but must return home, somehow; not unlike a parable we know from another “reformed” Jew.
We were reminded of the ever-closeness of family when, near the end of the audience Q&A, an older couple in the audience said they knew the director’s mother from Palm Beach, Fla. They just wondered out loud if there was anything they should pass on—or not—about the director’s admissions of recreational drug use, since they would be visiting her in a few days. Instead of laughing it off with a fast quip, as one might expect in “Los Angeles,” Asch looked down and seemed to be muttering for some time (praying for mercy?), while the audience laughed, not exactly prayerfully, not exactly with him.