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Film Criticism by David O'Connell

Holy Rollers

June 30th 2011 02:09

It might be a while before we can shake off the image of Jesse Eisenberg as anybody other than Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg. An actor who has proved to be a continual reminder of the nerd in us all, Eisenberg has limited range in a sense - that unwavering geeky persona that may be adjusted from role to role but which can never be vanquished entirely.

Early in Kevin Asch’s fact-based drama, Holy Rollers (2010), a creative leap of the imagination is required to adjust to Eisenberg as Sam Gold, a steadfast member of the Hassidic Jewish community in New York. Sam’s future wife has been chosen – as long as their first meeting goes well! His path has been set out before him it seems, but then comes the distraction of his wayward neighbour, and best friend’s brother, Yosef (Justin Bartha). A dangerous distraction, Yosef is a shady character who flaunts a mile-wide rebellious streak and has a very dodgy underworld friend in Jackie (Danny A. Abeckaser).

With Sam labouring part-time at his father’s clothing store, the carrot of extra cash on the side is too tempting to dismiss. Yosef arranges for Sam to fly to Amsterdam where he’s to bring back “medical supplies” unobserved because acting Jewish will surely draw no undue attention from customs officials. So begins months of journeying back and forth with what are ecstacy pills. Knowledge of the true nature of what he’s importing scares Sam but is no deterrence when weighed up against the profit to be derived from it.

Sam is a meek, unassuming guy whose naiveté has led him down a darkened cul-de-sac with only his preconceptions to protect him. When things step up a gear, a mini transformation occurs; there’s even a moment we might designate a “Zuckerberg” moment, when Sam takes charge of a drugs deal through deft elocution and an audacity hitherto unglimpsed.

An awakening of sorts it may be the least plausible moment in the film but we acknowledge it for its symbolism and broader implications on the narrative arc it must follow in adhering to the 'truth' as it occured in the late '90's. Most disturbing is the disgrace Sam brings to his family who hear whispers about his extracurricular activities and cannot reconcile them with images of the sweet boy who was being groomed as a rabbi.

Holy Rollers is an understated drama, a fact that works to its advantage. It refuses to sensationalise the subject matter, relating the progress made by Sam by degrees. There's his corruption at the hands of Yosef and Jackie and the threat of sexual transgression raising its head in the teasing, tainted flesh of Jackie's girlfriend Rachel (Ari Graynor). In time, Sam’s ambivalence becomes excruciating; he's lured into physical contact, impulses curbed by strict theological boundaries threatening to explore the tangible world without the strict approval of his brain.

The sobering final scenes are appropriately instructive in highlighting the undiscriminating fallout certain to occur when hubris blinkers a man from the world and the ramifications of crime. It's an almighty fall from grace; one that fortifies or annihilates a man's spirit - and after which, we know, penance must be served before you can even think of raising yourself up off the canvas.

Holy Rollers is out now on DVD from Madman Entertainment.


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