From a small festival in the wake of 9/11, the Tribeca Film Festival has blossomed over the past four years into one of New York City’s most anticipated cultural events. This year, there are an unusually abundant number of films with Jewish themes, from a consideration of female Israeli soldiers (“Close to Home”) to an exploration of the Jewish comedic soul (“I Want Someone To Eat Cheese With”) to the startling documentary about the gruesome murder of Daniel Pearl (“The Journalist and the Jihadi”). Here are reviews of several films that we found notable at this year’s festival, which runs at venues around the city through May 7.
As a rule, social causes don’t make for powerful movies. Occasionally a “Gandhi,” almost by sheer will, achieves greatness by forcing us into reverence. But on-screen drama depends on choices and ambiguity. Social causes, by their nature, tend to simplify the first and to eliminate the second, and movies about them usually fade into the woodwork. They’re fine as artifacts, but wishy-washy as acts of cinema.
Which is why it’s so surprising that a well-meaning exercise like Ronit Avni’s and Julia Bacha’s “Encounter Point” comes up so infuriating.
In this documentary about Middle East peace movements, which plays several times at the Tribeca Film Festival over the next week, provocation doesn’t initially seem to be on the agenda. An assortment of Palestinian and Israeli groups push for dialogue and nonviolence. Activists and victims repeat endlessly the basic idea: The more civilians talk, the better off everyone will be.
Beliefs are mild to the point of being platitudinous: A Jewish woman who became a peacenik after her son was killed in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict says, “There’s not pro-Israel or pro-Palestinian; there’s pro-solution.” The movie starts to take on the feel of a college argument with the dorm-room pacifist — it’s one you can’t win. Most of us don’t believe that violence is virtuous; it’s the cost and stakes that we argue about. Saying that we should aspire to more talking and less fighting isn’t exactly writing any new textbooks, no matter how invested and eloquent the authors.
If this seems naive or sloganeering, it’s harmless enough — and even, through victims’ slow dance of reconciliation — a little poignant. But as the movie unfolds, something more troubling begins to set in: a double standard.
The filmmakers give the West Bank security barrier the back of their hand. They refuse to allow settlers more than some hasty, clownish sound bites. In a TV interview, one Israeli peace activist shakes his head at the skeptical host as if the host is a hopeless cretin. The Palestinians, on the other hand, are militants, doves, righteous demonstrators and angry preachers. Even the pacifists espouse a West Bank free of Israelis. They can be whatever they want to be. But the only legitimate Israelis are guilt-ridden do-gooders; anyone endorsing more than the basic need for an army (and sometimes even that) is a fool, or worse. Even Israelis of army age can be acceptable only if they refuse to serve, as is the case for one character the directors lionize.
This all isn’t just a moral problem; it’s a problem that undermines the film’s own goals. Most of the groups shown here, outfits like Seeds of Peace, are doing noble and apolitical work. Taking right-leaning points of view seriously might have helped the filmmakers reach some who actually hold those views.
Then again, after a while it becomes clear that the movie isn’t really all that interested in reaching out; it’s an exercise in choir preaching. When viewed that way, it’s serviceable enough. But as a documentary, it’s wan. For all its encouragement to look at an old problem in new ways, “Encounter Point” turns out to be just another scolding film contrasting Israeli cushiness and Palestinian hardship.
The film does escape its ideological browbeating in ways unbeknownst, perhaps, even to itself. When a cross-cultural dialogue nearly doesn’t happen because of a roadblock, we see logistics interrupting idealism; when a stone thrower from the first intifada describes how he wouldn’t aim at civilian vehicles, we get the morality of revolution. A reformed settler gives the most nuanced speech — and perhaps the best summary of why dialogue is so tricky — when he says that he feels trapped between the bumper sticker ideologies of left and right. His position, he says, would take a whole page, and who wants to read anything so complex?
The film’s best shot by far features Robi, the mother who lost her son to a sniper, crying at a rally after she has found out that the Israelis have caught the sniper. Robi’s situation is the bruising stuff of Shakespearean drama: Should she follow her maternal urge and seek justice, or follow her politics and forgive? An entire film just about that choice might have been the more insightful and honest path. It certainly would have been the less self-congratulatory one.
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If Hollywood agents ever get a chance to seek revenge against their screen interlocutors, there are going to be
a lot of Jeremy Piven Caesar-cuts running around. In “Keeping Up With the Steins,” a likable family comedy about parents preparing for their son’s bar mitzvah, Piven plays Adam Fiedler, a muted, “Boom”-less version of his Ari Gold character in the HBO series “Entourage.” Piven actually signed up for the part before he began shooting “Entourage,” so it’s not his fault if he doesn’t erupt in a good scenery-chew every once in a while. Still, you can be forgiven for wanting less Adam and more Ari.
Fiedler and wife Joanne (Jami Gertz) are busy planning the bar mitzvah of son Benjy (Daryl Sabara), the kind of child in whom it’s easy to mistake fear for disinterest. Under pressure to pick a theme, Benjy chooses baseball, and the film then goes about capturing the honest misunderstandings by which a bar mitzvah becomes the gulf between a parent’s expectation and a child’s impulse.
Contrary to the marketing campaign, “Keeping Up With the Steins” is not really about the foibles of planning a party. The bar mitzvah is more conceit than dramatic backbone. The film’s really a story about a complicated relationship between Adam and his father Irwin (Garry Marshall), who shows up after walking out on his family 26 years before. Irwin — a loud-talking, reservation-dwelling skinny-dipper now dating a woman who calls herself Sacred Feather (Daryl Hannah, in a perfect comic turn) — is overly expressive and boorish, an earthy drifter every bit the opposite of his overachieving son. (After “Meet the Fockers,” can a moratorium be declared on hippy, sexagenarian fathers?)
The story lays out three generations of familial misunderstanding, even though everyone is moving toward a reconciliation long-forgone. Of course Benjy will learn the meaning of his bar mitzvah. Of course Adam will figure out a way to forgive.
It’s the movie’s small touches of family that make the familiar heartwarming: a shot of Adam ruefully watching his own awkward bar mitzvah video from 20 years before, or the casual way he pats his son’s knee affectionately at the outer reaches of the frame.
Top-flight TV comedians, including Cheryl Hines, Doris Roberts (as Adam’s mother and Irwin’s ex-wife) and Larry Miller fill out a large cast of recognizables. It’s talent not entirely well spent, but the movie’s heart is in the right place, and it’s refreshing to see a film satirizing upper-middle class Jewish suburbia without taking too many cheap shots at it.
Marshall, whose locutions have become so self-parodying that when he actually has something serious to say, we don’t know whether to be touched or confused, is the wild card on whom the film depends. It’s up to him to steer the movie between sappy and shticky. Roberts, meanwhile, manages to turn her crafty TV mother in-law into dignified bathos. Her glistening eyes at the bar mitzvah service constitute one of the film’s most authentic moments. “Keeping Up With the Steins” manages to hit all the big topics — family grievances, the perils of materialism, a child’s identity — without straining too many muscles.
Steven Zeitchik is a staff writer at Variety.