Halfway through watching Kevin Asch’s debut film “Holy Rollers,” I realized that I didn’t really care about the drug deals.
I’m supposed to care about them, of course. But the plot, based on the true story of a small group of Hasidic Jews in Brooklyn who become involved in an Israeli drug cartel, is really about an insular world few get to see. I cared far more about the first half of the movie, an incisive, funny, well-documented picture of the Hasidic Jewish community in Brooklyn in the 1990s.
Written by: Antonio Macia
Starring: Jesse Eisenberg, Justin Bartha, Ari Graynor
Seen at: Museum of Fine Arts
The story revolves around Sam Gold, a young man facing his impending arranged marriage and entry into Rabbinical school. But he is sidetracked by the lure of money, flashed by his best friend’s older brother Yosef, who says he has a job bringing “medicine” into the country for rich people. When his marriage falls through due to his family’s bad finances, he decides to make some extra cash. In keeping with the good-boy-gone-bad storyline, Sam quickly gets in over his head selling what he learns is not medicine but grade A ecstasy.
Asch has an eye for details in the early scenes of Sam’s life, from the way the Gold men have to turn the stove on with a pair of pliers, to the immaculate home of Zeldy Lazar, the girl Sam is set to marry. I don’t know if Asch is from a Hasidic background, but he seems to intimately understand how insular communities can be both suffocating and comforting in equal measure. As Sam enters the murky world of the 90s club scene, he becomes both ambivalent to his faith yet still strangely grasping for it. Eisenberg has real poetry in his performance, playing Sam as a mensch, but still very much a vain, ignorant child.
The drugs, the raves in Amsterdam, the deals with dark, terrifying people in abandoned warehouses seem like carnival novelties, a cut-in from another film set on fast-forward. They’re beautiful scenes, but generalized. They could be from any film about drugs, and the latter part of the movie is sloppily edited. The end especially is too hastily done; I’m reasonably certain Asch simply didn’t know how to end it.
It really is a great story; the whole point of using Hasidic Jews as drug mules is that the TSA circa 1999 would never check them. It’s also a story of a family and a community. I just wish the drug deals had been a little more… exciting.