Friday, October 16, 2020

NewFest Spotlight: Three Very Jewish Movies

I’m delighted to be covering a number of selections from the 32nd Annual New York LGBTQ+ Film Festival, NewFest. The festival runs October 16th-27th, 2020, and films are available to watch anywhere in the United States during that time.

Many of the films at NewFest highlight minority groups other than the LGBTQ+ community, which offer informative portraits about diverse experiences. As a Jewish film critic, I’m always on the lookout for projects that feature Jewish characters that are more than just broad stereotypes and invoke casual knowledge that isn’t entirely accurate. I was pleased therefore to find three films at this year’s festival that all feature a Hebrew word in their titles and coincidentally all deal with rituals related to death. Each is intriguing and bizarre in its own way, but it felt appropriate to tackle them together.

“Minyan” is set in 1980s Brooklyn and follows David (Samuel H. Levine), an unenthusiastic yeshiva student who agrees to be one of the ten men for a minyan so that his grandfather (Ron Rifkin) can move into a prime apartment that has just become available. His grandfather is aware of his lack of passion for religion, and David has a completely separately existence from the one dominated by his Russian parents when he goes to bars and parties to meet men, including a bartender (Alex Hurt).

“Tahara” takes place at a synagogue during the funeral of a high schooler who died by suicide. Hannah (Rachel Sennott) couldn’t be less interested in being there, and has her eyes set on Tristan (Daniel Taveras), a clueless classmate. Her best friend Carrie (Madeline Grey DeFreece) is more sensitive, and she’s thrown off by Hannah’s request to test her kissing abilities out on her, which trigger deeper romantic feelings that the self-involved Rachel couldn’t possibly bother to notice.

“Shiva Baby” finds Danielle (also Sennott) attending a shiva with her parents (Polly Draper and Fred Melamed) and unexpectedly running into the sugar daddy (Danny Deferrari) she just slept with that morning, who is both married and has a baby. As she fends off comments about her weight and her career from other shiva attendees and runs into her high school girlfriend (Molly Gordon), Danielle quickly starts to panic as two distinctly separate parts of her life collide in an irreversible way.
It’s worth separating “Minyan” out from the other two because it is absolutely a drama while the other two are inherently comedic. In all three of these films, the protagonists have a good working knowledge of Jewish tradition and aren’t necessarily interested in learning more. David doesn’t resent going to minyan but doesn’t really engage with the meaning of it that has so affected his grandfather, or has meant a great deal to two best friends who live next door to him, Itzik (Mark Margolis) and Herschel (Christopher McCann), whose connection with each other is the only thing that really seems to move David. The exploration of his complicated identity is worthwhile but proceeds at a slow and unengaging pace that drags for its nearly two-hour runtime.

“Tahara” and “Shiva Baby,” on the other hand, both run closer to eighty minutes, remaining in or right outside one building for the entire time. “Tahara” makes use of social media imagery, Claymation, and subtitles during silent conversations conducted only with expressions and head movements to enliven Hannah’s droning experience and Carrie’s unexpected awakening. “Shiva Baby” has a score that sounds most like a horror movie, bringing to life Danielle’s sense of being trapped in an inescapable situation between the bagels and being outed as someone’s mistress. Both are creative in their approaches to stories that feel far more vivid and engaging because audiences are stuck in this synagogue and shiva house with these characters.
Knowledgeable viewers may still question accents or specific moments that don’t feel entirely accurate, but overall these three films represent intriguing and worthwhile windows into experiences that are certainly not universal but will likely speak to many who haven’t felt entirely comfortable being themselves in the presence of their community. All three lean heavily on parental influences who proscribe a certain way of life for their children that involves, at the very least, being in Jewish spaces if only for the sake of tradition and education. What could be considered acts of rebellion here by these protagonists are still done while they are taking part, at least physically, in some sort of Jewish ritual.

None of these films are particularly recommended for viewing by the whole family (or in a synagogue), due mainly to explicit content expressed both visually and in language. Part of the purpose of NewFest is to give voice to diverse storytellers and normalize their experiences, and their representation in film to make them less objectionable or startling. As a film, “Minyan” is probably the most standard of these three, while “Tahara” and “Shiva Baby” are decidedly more experimental and strange. They each offer something interesting and deserve to be seen, likely by an audience completely unprepared for what to expect.

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