Holy Rollers 521.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Holy Rollers, an American fact-based movie about hassidim who become involved
smuggling Ecstasy tablets out of Amsterdam, is the rare film that gives an
authentic feeling of what life is like in Brooklyn’s haredi neighborhoods. Yes,
there are inaccuracies here and there – the rebbe of the sect seems oddly
informal and easy to get an appointment with, and he seems to talk a lot more
about the Torah than the Talmud – but on the whole, it seems real. And that’s
the twist that makes it more than the usual drug-dealing tale.
stars Jesse Eisenberg – the same actor who has the lead in The Social Network –
as Sammy Gold, a young man from an unnamed hassidic sect in Brooklyn. (It was
filmed near a Satmar neighborhood and, according to the filmmakers, the Satmar Hassidim watched the filming and
spontaneously gave their blessing. Don’t try this in Mea She’arim,
Compared to other films that have portrayed religious Jews in the
past, Holy Rollers
shows that the hassidim don’t live in total isolation from
the mainstream culture. Manhattan and its pleasures and temptations are only a
train ride away. A guy in the next house has a forbidden TV and watches it with
the curtains slightly open.
Sammy is painfully aware that his pious
father (Mark Evanir, an Israeli actor who is currently starring in The Human
), who runs a fabric shop, is not a good businessman. The
family has very little money (their stove doesn’t even have a pilot light), and
Sammy fears it’s hurting his chances with the girl he wants to marry, Zeldy
(Stella Keitel, and yes, she is the daughter of Harvey Keitel and Lorraine
Bracco). His father wants Sammy to study to be a rabbi, but Sammy insists on
working in his father’s store and trying to make it profitable.
Yosef (Justin Bartha), the brother of Sammy’s devout best friend, Leon (Jason
Fuchs), tells Sammy he can earn thousands of dollars bringing “medicine” to New
York from Amsterdam, Sammy is game.
Through Yosef, Sammy meets the
dealer, Jackie (Danny A. Abeckaser), an Israeli, who parties and hangs out with
young blondes dressed in what is (for Sammy) daring clothing. Sammy knows this
medicine story is fishy, but he chooses not to ask questions.
as Sammy glimpses Amsterdam’s Red Light district through the window of the hotel
room where he is parked until it is time to head home, he is like a deer caught
in the headlights. He simply can’t process what he sees, and the seediness
around him, while alluring on one level, is off-putting in other ways. He still
just wants to earn enough money to impress Zeldy.
As Sammy wises up and
gets more involved in the drug trade, even recruiting other hassidim to work as
mules (carriers), the movie becomes less convincing. At first Sammy seems so
innocent, and his transformation into a true drug dealer who discusses “moving
product” with drug kingpins seems to come out of nowhere. But throughout the
film, there remains an interesting tension between Sammy’s hassidic identity and
his desire to taste forbidden delights, such as sex and the drug he’s been
smuggling. While in many ways the lifestyle from which he has come seems narrow
and repressive, the drug culture is also grim. Every word there is tinged with
sarcasm and double meanings, the girls seem knowing but are easily exploited,
and there is the ever-present threat of prison or beatings from
While the tension works dramatically, it is all a bit bleak, and
in the end it isn’t clear what Sammy learns from his foray into the underworld.
But the film is greatly enhanced by the first-rate acting throughout, especially
Jesse Eisenberg in the lead. I saw this film just after The Social Network
at first I kept thinking I was seeing Mark Zuckerberg as a hassid. But then
Eisenberg’s low-key performance won me over, and I could see him as Sammy. He
has given wonderful performances in several other independent films, notably The
Squid and the Whale
and Roger Dodger
. But this movie is far different from his
other work and shows his versatility. Most likely, he will be a star long after
many of his contemporaries have faded from view.