Holy Rollers

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Reviewed by Marc Glassman

Holy Rollers
Kevin Asch, director
Antonio Macia, script
Starring: Jesse Eisenberg (Sam Gold), Justin Bertha (Yosef Zimmerman), Danny Abeckaser (Jackie Solomon), Ari Graynor (Rachael Apfel), Q-Tip (Ephrim)

One of the odder news items in the past decade was the arrest and successful trial of a Jewish drug smuggling ring in New York. An Israeli crook had come up with a brilliant scheme: hire Hasidic Jews complete with black hats, 19th century frock coats and peyos (sideburns or a beard) to carry in “medicine” from Europe to America. Unbeknownst to most of the couriers, the “medicine” was Ecstasy, the drug of choice in America’s club scene in the late ’90s. Millions of dollars worth of those pills were smuggled from Amsterdam to Brussels (where there is still a large number of Hasidim) to New York (the home of Brooklyn’s huge Hasidic communities) until customs officers eventually figured out what was happening.

This reminder of the pre-9/11 days and of the ’90s drug culture has been made into a quirky American Indie thriller. Holy Rollers concentrates on Brooklyn’s Hasidim and particularly on Sammy Gold, a nice boy led astray by his wise-ass next-door neighbour Yosef. At first, Sammy is used by Yosef to be a courier but he’s one Brooklyn Jew who’s too smart to be so easily manipulated. Quickly, Sammy joins Yosef as an accomplice to Jackie Solomon, the Israeli who runs the ring.

Naturally, Sammy’s new life doesn’t go over well at home. The Gold family doesn’t believe that Sam is helping his new Israeli friend with high priced clothing imports. Rumours spread and Sam joins Yosef on the outside, expelled from the Hasidic community.

The true power of Holy Rollers comes across in Sam’s scenes among the Hasidim. I’m Jewish but this ultra-Orthodox society, which has changed little since the 19th century, is as remote to me as it is to mainstream North American Christians. The reverence to God and family values among the Hasidim is equivalent to America’s reborn Christians. They’re both Holy Rollers, not without charm or love–but vastly different from each other and the secular values espoused by the majority of people in the West. (Of course, many Muslims and Hindus are also espousing a religious return to older ethical and familial and structures–but that’s a subject for another day!)

Sammy finds himself torn between a reverence for his past and the seductive charms of his new friends Jackie and Rachael. The scenes of friendly flirtation between Rachael and Sammy are the most intense and charming in the film. But Holy Rollers is a docu-drama and a thriller. Ultimately, Sammy has to decide who to believe in: Hasidim or his new drug-culture pals.

But before that choice is made, Holy Rollers takes us on a quirky, often amusing, story about a clash of cultures. Jesse Eisenberg, who romanced Kristen Stewart in Adventureland and played the older brother in The Squid and the Whale, is the perfect choice to play Sammy. He’s this generation’s Jewish nerd as romantic–awkward, shy, too much in his head but still appealing to women, who seem attracted by his innocence and lack of male artifice. Ari Graynor, as Rachael, responds well to Eisenberg, making their scenes compulsively watchable.

Director Kevin Asch seems to relish this film’s dichotomies: Hasidim vs drug dealers; romantic vs carnal love; Amsterdam vs New Amsterdam (New York). Holy Rollers isn’t quite as successful playing off the human comedy of a former Hasid becoming a drug dealer with the mechanics of a thriller. The film could be more taut and intense–or looser and funnier.

Holy Rollers is an intelligent, well made film, highlighted by a fine male lead. It’s worth seeing, either at a small cinema or on DVD. Hardly a blockbuster, it’s a “little film that can,” a stylish thriller–and a comedy.

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