'Holy Rollers' gambles & wins

Jesse Eisenberg is very convincing in the role of a Brooklyn hassid who is seduced into drug trafficking.

Holy Rollers 521 (photo credit: Courtesy)
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.
The film 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, guys.).
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 Resources Manager), 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.
So when 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.
At first, 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 rivals.
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, and 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.