Holy Rollers Review

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Sammy (Eisenberg) — an ultra-orthodox Jewish teenager — risks losing everything when his frustration with religion’s limitations gets the better of him. Lured into a drug-smuggling career by his shifty neighbour (Bartha), Sammy must go on the run, but wi


As far as originality goes, this directorial debut from Kevin Asch gets a head start — it’s a drug mule crime story based on an extraordinary case in ’90s Brooklyn, New York, which saw Hasidic Jews primed to courier ecstasy from Amsterdam. It’s a wonder nobody thought of this before: the big hats, the embarrassed shuffling, the muttering… what customs officer would suspect such innately suspicious smugglers? But rather than being a dark-humoured, Yiddish gangster thriller, Holy Rollers is more familiar: a compelling coming-of-age drama examining a frustrated teenager’s loss of innocence.

Meet Sammy Gold (Jesse Eisenberg). One of God’s “chosen people”, his life has been mapped out: working for his tailor father; studying to become a Rabbi; praying he’ll one day make a good match. Obedient but thwarted by blind faith, Sammy is nevertheless preoccupied with the notion of money. So far, so Fiddler On The Roof. But things turn more peddler in the hood due to local rogue Yosef (Justin Bartha) — the only Hasid in the borough with white Nike hi-tops and porn. He offers Sammy a different calling in the “medical business”, working for Israeli Del Boy Jackie (Danny A. Abeckaser). Naive Sammy takes the bait, spiralling down a path paved with blasphemy, sex, drugs, non-kosher sushi… Everything bar a bacon sandwich is cavorting before his nervy, untouched exterior as Sammy discovers what things would be like… if he were a rich man.

Eisenberg’s not covering new ground here (see The Social Network, The Squid And The Whale, Zombieland). We’ve come to expect The Eisennerd to be awkwardly stuttering, gulping and emoting onscreen. As a Woody Allen fan from New Jersey, he does it well; outcast Sammy’s paranoia and alienation in both the drug world and his community is something Eisenberg could communicate in his sleep. Still, he’s an effective choice. But it’s versatile Bartha, known for goofing about in The Hangover, who shines with his raw depiction of a criminal with a soul.

It’s that concept of moral conflict that drives Asch’s project. Yes, he could have sexed up the material — as a drug romp Holy Rollers is under-cooked. But as introspective drama, Asch takes a gritty news story and makes it run deeper. Juxtaposing Brooklyn’s claustrophobic living quarters against the throbbing, strobe-lit hedonism of Amsterdam, it takes us on a journey closer towards secular integration and further from God.

Jewish clichés can be forgiven as Asch revisits the shtetl for his crime tale that shines a light upon a society within via one rebel’s secular awakening. Notice Q-Tip’s cameo as a member of the Kosher Nostra.