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Holy Rollers: Been There, Done That, Got the T-shirt (Or Big Black Hat)

By Megan Lane · May 24, 2010

Holy Rollers took the formula of a conventional coming of age story and placed it into the world of extreme religion and international drug crime.  However, this intriguing true story fails to give us proper character background, and in the end, feels like something we’ve seen before. Debut filmmaker Kevin Asch tells the story of Sam (Jesse Eisenberg), a Hassidic Jew, who is seduced into drug smuggling by his fellow Hassid and neighbor, Yosef (Justin Bartha).  To gain the power he desires, Sam sacrifices his family, his fiancé, and his beliefs.

There are not a lot of people in this world familiar with the customs of the Hassidic Jewish community.  Yes, we all see them walking to services on a Friday night, but we don’t know much more about them other than that they rock the black suits on a daily basis, sport furry hats, and have payos (curls) hanging from their sideburns.  But what do all those things mean?   When Sam takes a job as a drug mule for Jackie Solomon (Danny A. Abeckaser), he enters a world of alcohol, drugs, and loose women in short skirts.  He’s never even talked to his fiancé, much less kissed a girl.  But what the filmmakers fail to tell us is that Sam isn’t just sheltered.  It is actually against tradition for men and women to touch or even look at each other unless they’re married. 

Simply receiving a kiss from a girl was enough to rock Sam’s world, but when he actually chooses to kiss another girl, he’s officially left his religion behind.  When he cuts off his payos, it’s not only that he’s grown up; he’s abandoned his belief system.

Explaining the traditions of the Hassidic Jews would have not only helped us understand Sam’s character better, we could have also learned a lot more about Yosef.  Bartha pulls off his performance well, but doesn’t seem challenged in his role.  He’s simply a vehicle to pull Sam into the world, and then he himself disappears into drugs and sex.  He goes from being a man who doesn’t believe in Hassidic traditions, but stays with his family because he has no one else, to moving out and not even attending his brother’s wedding.

What made him abandon his payos (in a scene we never saw or explained)? What made him start taking drugs? How did we get there?  Yosef was actually much more ambiguous than Sam, and it would have been nice to see more of him. The movie emphasizes certain story points that aren’t very important to Sam’s development. For example, Sam is devastated at losing his fiancé when her family decides to look for another match. However, he never really knew her in the first place.  Why does he care that she’s marrying someone else?  The filmmakers hardly spend anytime on Sam’s increasingly rocky relationship with his parents and everything snowballs rather quickly. One minute he’s buying his mother a new stove and the next his parents know all about the drugs and have kicked him out of the house.  Key explanatory scenes were either cut or never written in exchange for material that bares no weight on our main character.    Unlike traditional coming of age stories, as Holy Rollers comes to a close, the audience doesn’t have an ending to root for.  Should Sam continue as a drug mule, slowly seducing other Hassids into his world of money and power?  Of course not. But should he beg forgiveness from his father, rejoin his family and return to his rabbinical training?  He won’t be happy doing that either. I won’t spoil the movie, but I will tell you that it’s neither… and not even remotely climactic.

(2 out of 5 stars)