Contrary to American stereotype, a black trench coat and yarmulke don’t make you a saint. Would a naïve Hasid really pioneer the transport of ecstasy tablets from Brooklyn’s seedy alleyways to the red light districts of Amsterdam? Could a clan of side curl-sporting couriers really choose sin over synagogues?
“Holy Rollers,” the mesmerizing, sad look at a naïve adolescent’s misguided shift from family values to illicit smuggling, is based on fact. Acting as mules for an Israeli drug peddler, Hasidic Jew carriers passed millions of pills through airport security stations between New York and Holland during the late nineties.
Kevin Asch’s wise, observant film follows Sam Gold, a young Hasid from Brooklyn. Sam isn’t a bad kid. He obediently slaves away at his father’s humble Manhattan fabric store. He strives to become a Rabbi. He’s annoyingly polite. Sam is completely, utterly sheltered from the Wicked Ways of Man.
Yoseph (Justin Bartha), a fellow Hasid from next door, isn’t so innocent. In fact, he’s a porn-watching, ciggie-smoking hedonist whose prefers Anglo Saxon over Yiddish. How can this charismatic rebel sport a new Rolex and flash so much cash, while Sam’s family struggles to make do with a broken stove?
Acting as the Great Temptor, Yoseph recruits Sam into his lucrative, shady business: the international transport of “medicine.” It’s a slow, insidious shift, and Sam is a perfect pupil. His hormones are going haywire, but religious tradition denies him the caress of a woman. A natural adolescent instinct to pull away from family tradition flares into overdrive. He severs his side curls with scissors.
Sam wins the trust of Jackie (Danny A. Abeckaser), a suave drug kingpin, earning wads of cash from this unholy alliance. While enticing greenbacks fill his pockets, Sam falls in lust with Rachel (Ari Graynor), Jackie’s smokin’ hot trophy squeeze. Sam’s urgent need for physical consummation with Rachel is complicated: this sultry seductress perceives his innocence as the ultimate aphrodisiac.
Director Asch proves a master at projecting Sam’s confused perspective onto the screen. After a life deprived of forbidden fruit, the youngster’s eyes are jarringly opened wide to a blonde’s curvaceous sexuality, the power of money, and the pleasantly distorted vibes of an ecstasy-fueled rave party.
The depiction of innocence forever lost is a delicate tightrope to act, and Jesse Eisenberg nails it. He’s saddled with a drab role, and knows it: Sam is unshaped and inexperienced, with precious little charisma to burn. Eisenberg accepts this character truth, and gives a persuasive, understated turn. He’s heartbreaking. Flashier work by Bartha, Abeckaser, and Graynor is a potent contrast to Eisenberg’s gentle depiction.
“Holy Rollers” suggests that beneath our diverse beliefs, customs, and clothes, an internal, eternal war rages between sin and salvation. It’s one helluva ride.