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Holy Rollers

By Philip Martin

This article was published July 2, 2010 at 4:21 a.m.

— More interesting than arresting, Kevin Asch’s debut film Holy Rollers - one of the more buzzed-about features to emerge from this year’s Sundance Film Festival - provides us with a richly detailed (though how accurate, I’m not in position to say) glimpse into the domestic lives of ultra-conservative Hasidic Jews living in an enclave in Brooklyn.

It also supplies us with a fairly routine depiction of an illegal drug importing operation and the lurid lures of outlaw life. The fact that it’s based on an actual phenomenon - in the late 1990s young Hasidim were recruited to smuggle Ecstasy tablets into the United States from Amsterdam - adds to the inherent intrigue of the project, although there’s no reason to believe Jesse Eisenberg’s Sam Gold is based on any particular individual.

Sam is the studious teenage son of a fabric salesman, a candidate for yeshiva, for whom the future seems written. His parents have begun a search to find him a marriage match. Yet Sam, while devoted to his family, feels economically insecure - his father ekes out a modest living, and Sam’s prospects fail to impress the family of a prospective bride. Sam feels a bit jealous of his naive friend Leon (Jason Fuchs), a gifted scholar for whom greatness is predicted, and even of Leon’s wayward older brother Yosef (Justin Bartha, last seen in The Hangover), who talks smack and wears a Rolex.

Yosef senses Sam’s susceptibility and knows he can’t refuse a good-paying part-time job. He introduces Sam to some people, and soon the good boy is on his way to Amsterdam to pick up a parcel of “medicine” and ferry it home to New York.

While Sam is remarkably slow to catch on that what he’s doing is criminal, the money and the alluring frisson of the forbidden keep him coming back to the strobe-lit clubs of Amsterdam and the fast world of Ecstasy wholesaler Jackie (Danny A. Abeckaser) and his faux shiksa girlfriend Rachel (Ari Graynor, who’s always better than the movies she’s in).

Having shaken hands with the wider world, it’s not long before Sam succumbs to its temptations, cutting off his sidelocks, forsaking his family and their expectations and striking out on his own. Sound familiar?

Holy Rollers - the title strikes me as unfortunately glib and tone deaf - is basically two movies in one: a genuinely involving character drama and a by-the-numbers crime story/ cautionary tale. Eisenberg and Bartha are very good in their scenes together, however incredible Sam’s credulity. The script by Antonio Macia, a Mormon convert, is interesting in its specifics but might have benefited from another couple of drafts.

Like a lot of underfinanced independent productions, the film suffers from some obvious production problems (it is literally dark, probably because it costs money to light scenes optimally) but on balance is an encouraging development. Holy Rollers won’t make anybody rich, but should make some mothers proud.

Holy Rollers86Cast: Jesse Eisenberg, Justin Bartha,Ari Graynor, Jason Fuchs Director: Kevin Asch Rating: R, for drug content, language and brief sexual material.

Running time: 89 minutes

MovieStyle, Pages 36 on 07/02/2010

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