With a US news media increasingly filing stories bordering on fiction, it was inevitable that fabrication in movies, whether documentaries or otherwise, would not be far behind. Last year’s Roman Polanski: Wanted Dead or Alive subjectively served up its own metaphorical judge and jury that just about cleared the longtime fugitive child rapist and famed filmmaker of all outstanding charges, while demanding judicial exoneration.
And now first time director Kevin Asch’s Holy Rollers dramatically depicts the real life Brooklyn Hasidic youth who participated in an international drug smuggling ring, not as legally innocent, but rather defensively as gullible dupes of a larger manipulative criminal enterprise. If only such slack were cut for ghetto youth, whether on or off screen.
Holy Rollers is based on the March 2000 conviction of eighteen year old Shimon Levita of the Bobova Orthodox Jewish sect, for organizing a band of Hasidic high schoolers as drug smugglers under the innocent veneer cover of religious garb. And as they traveled between Europe, Canada and the US while trafficking the reigning designer drug of choice, Ecstasy. And though he was harshly condemned by the judge along with the dozens of Hasidim from his tightly knit sect who showed up to support him, Levita received a mere thirty month sentence out of a potential maximum fifteen years in prison, to be served at a government-run boot camp.
Jesse Eisenberg, who may have picked up a skill or two dodging the undead in Zombieland, turns up in Holy Rollers eluding the authorities this time around, as he switches career aspirations from rabbi to controlled substance courier. Eisenberg is Sam, a confused and impressionable young man from an economically struggling family. After the stern parents of a girl he cares for reject him as suitable matrimonial material, which is apparently their prerogative in this rigidly structured community, Sam seeks to recover from his bruised self-esteem through financial pursuits instead. So when his rebellious neighbor Yosef (Justin Bartha) lures the despondent youth into the lucrative drug scheme in question through an Israeli smuggler, Sam reconciles his conflicted religious values with enormous denial that he’s actually engaging in anything immoral.
Eisenberg surprises and impresses with his expanding dramatic range in movies, conveying with remarkable compassion the emotional complexity of a character caught between a repressive, isolating religion, and the decadent forbidden temptations of the larger society surrounding his thwarted world. Holy Rollers also probes with unusual candor and insight, the mysterious Hasidic culture that seems to exist as a parallel universe preserved from a distant century.
And in a country that favors a punitive approach to drugs, with the imposition of harsh, draconian prison sentences rather than treatment and legalization, it’s refreshing to have a film like Holy Rollers out there, which casts a more humane light on the topic in general. But it’s unfortunate that similarly inclined nonwhite characters in movies continue to be ferociously demonized and depicted solely with criminal intent, while white youth are more often than not, simply psychologically troubled.