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A uniquely Jewish form of family dysfunction provides the tension in "Tickling Leo," an indie drama opening Friday at Manhattan's Quad Cinema and at theaters in Queens and Malverne, on Long Island. The debut film of writer-director Jeremy Davidson, the movie tells the story of Zak Pikler, an engaged writer who brings his fiancee to an unexpectedly eventful family reunion around the days of Yom Kippur.
Converging at a dilapidated lake house in a remote area of the Catskills, the other characters include Warren Yitzchak Pikler, a mentally ill poet who's also the protagonist's father; the younger man's uncle, Ronald; and Madeleine Pikler, a well-meaning in-law who is well-accustomed to the family's volatility and idiosyncrasies.
Filmed in just two weeks in the Catskills and in New York City, "Tickling Leo" takes its name from a recently published story by the main character, a young man who has largely distanced himself from his fickle relatives and their troubled past - which they have prevented him from discovering. Over the course of the film - whose producers include "Fried Green Tomatoes" actress Mary Stuart Masterson (also Davidson's wife) - the protagonist and his girlfriend learn some of the reasons for his father's strange behavior and for why his father has maintained a 30-year silence with his own father, a Jewish refugee from Nazi-occupied Hungary.
Modestly budgeted but nicely acted, the film's second half delves into (fictional) revelations about the aging patriarch's involvement in the Kastner Affair, in which Dr. Rudolf Kastner, a Hungarian refugee to Israel, was accused of collaborating with Adolf Eichmann in the deportation of the country's Jews in exchange for passage to safety for himself and 1,600 others. The allegations, which led to Kastner's assassination in Tel Aviv in 1957, were later rejected by Israel's Supreme Court, but continue to stir controversy and debate in Israel.
While the scenes and flashbacks involving the Kastner Affair are some of the film's most dramatic, it is the earlier section of the movie that is drawn from Davidson's own life, which began with a childhood in upstate New York. A veteran actor who has appeared in TV shows ranging from "Ally McBeal" to "NYPD Blue," the 37-year-old began work on "Tickling Leo," his first script, nearly a decade ago.
"As an actor, your lifestyle can be so passive in some ways," he says. "You're always just hoping to be hired and that the project you're hired onto will align with your passion and interestsâ€¦ I realized I wanted to go back to characters and stories that were important to me."
He adds that he and his own father "thankfully have a much more communicative relationship" than the father and son in the film, although other issues - such as having a mother who wasn't originally Jewish - overlap.
"[My parents] would both take us to synagogue, but it was more at her urging that they sent us to a Jewish school," he recalls. "I think she was seeking to belong to a community, and I also think it was about her insecurities about being a convert and not quite accepted by the Orthodox community we were in."
He notes that for character actor Eli Wallach, the film presented a different avenue for revisiting his past.
"He hasn't played a lot of Jews in his career," Davidson says of the Brooklyn-born Emmy winner, still working regularly at 93 years of age. "He was very excited to have a chance to play a Jew at this stage of his life."
For both the characters and the movie's audience, the motives of the fictional family members can be as difficult to discern as real history.
"If one thing is true," Davidson says, "it's that the truth was very elusive and remains very elusive... People have so many agendas, it's difficult to sift through them for the truth."