Directed by: Kevin Asch
Starring: Jesse Eisenberg, Justin Bartha, Ari Graynor
I’ve never really been a huge fan of your traditional rags to riches tale, whether it involves a wayward young soul striving to become something he or she clearly isn’t supposed to be or not. These types of films can often strike an emotional chord with audiences, but the inclusion of sex, drugs and/or alcohol is usually in the cards, resulting in disappointment after uninspired disappointment given a slew of recent examples. Even though Kevin Asch’s Holy Rollers tells the tale of 20-year-old Sam Gold and his desire to make something of himself as an Hasidic drug mule trafficking ecstasy overseas, I do admit my interest was slightly piqued, but mostly on account of Eisenberg’s involvement. Based on true events, Asch’s feature-length debut does manage to bring a substantial tinge of originality to the table, surprising me in ways I never thought possible in spite of the script’s sometimes glaring platitude.
Using a borderline destitute family from a noticeably struggling area as Holy Rollers‘ centerpiece isn’t the most enthralling of elements, but from a strictly cultural viewpoint, the film excels in offering us a glimpse into the everyday goings-on a traditional Orthodox family takes part in. From attending synagogue and demonstrating ethically questionable business practices to predetermined marital relations, Asch and writer Antonio Macia explore every inch of their society, allowing Sam’s inevitable coming-of-age struggle to resonate with viewers on a slightly unconventional level. Sam’s angst eventually leads to resentment, thus allowing himself to be unwittingly recruited by wayward neighbor Yosef as, you guessed it, a viable part of an ongoing drug trade in an attempt to break free from societal norms.
The journey that ensues is a predictable one, following our misguided yet amiable protagonist as his behavior causes his own family and community to resent him in return, even though he somehow still feels he’s done nothing wrong. Obvious clichés aside, the film remains thoroughly effective in illustrating the emotional hardships that go hand-in-hand with Sam’s choice to stray from the beaten path, allowing it to also function partly as a full-blown cautionary tale while being lighthearted enough to avoid dissolving into melodrama. Having said this, it’s hard to pinpoint anything else about the narrative itself that’s really worth a damn, but it’s easy to tell that the nonfictional elements implemented into the script are what prevent it from offering up anything else substantial in terms of substance and complexity.
Jesse Eisenberg has yet to disappoint me, and his performance here both supports this claim and proves he possesses the versatility needed to establish himself as one of this generation’s best working actors. The emotionally taxing circumstances Sam endures on his morally reprehensible journey are handled as deftly as can be, allowing Eisenberg to spread his wings once again to help elevate Holy Rollers well above that of substandard schlock. The chemistry he exhibits with costar Justin Bartha is equally admirable, as are the efforts of Bartha himself as Sam’s incorrigible acquaintance and especially Ari Graynor as boss Jackie’s free-spirited squeeze, Rachel. All things considered, these performances are where a great deal of its appeal lies and the sole reason why the countless clichés it embraces don’t hinder the entire production from reaching its full potential, even if it still manages to miss the mark where it counts the most.
In spite of an apparent lack of depth and imagination, Holy Rollers still manages to entertain far more than bore thanks to an exceptional central performance and an unusually apt recount of some admittedly fascinating events. Further benefiting from its portrayal of a Jewish Orthodox family in turmoil whilst illustrating just how detrimental a son’s actions are to the very fabric of their being, Kevin Asch’s directorial debut is certainly a promising one. Providing you’re willing to give this one a go with a slightly less than critical mindset, difficult as it may be, it’s easy to overlook the blemishes that come about following Sam’s initial descent into a far less than favorable universe, that is if the familiarity of it all isn’t too much to bear.