The seriocomic romance “Nick & Rachel” aims for cute but hits closer to cloying. At just an hour’s length, narrative feature is too brief for a theatrical career; thin articulation of culture-clash concept would have been better played out at short-subject length, anyhow.
Grave, pretty young N.Y. Hasidic Jewess Rachel Pearlman (Sabrina Boudot) is first seen driving to another day’s work with rather elderly father Chaim (Ben Hammer). Gazing out the window while stuck in traffic, she spies another vehicular couple swapping tongue — and such blatant passion flusters her outwardly obedient, good-girl demeanor.
Into the family jewelry store bounds pleasant, slightly eccentric student-type Nick (Alex Draper), who wants to buy an engagement ring — simply cuz, it turns out, he’s had a premonition he’ll meet his soul mate today. Come next morning, he’s back; the ring got flattened in traffic, and cash-poor Nick signs on as a shop odd-jobber to earn its repair.
Natch, sparks soon fly between Nick and Rachel. But they swoon in secret, since he’s gentile — off-limits matrimonially, and deemed inappropriate even for one-on-one conversation. Besides, she’s already enduring a series of arranged dates with eligible, if uniformly obnoxious, Hasidic bachelors.
When the duo are caught embracing by Papa (whom one nearly expects to say, “I hef no daughter!”), Rachel is hustled onto a fast wedlock track, Nick bodily thrown off the premises. Their unrequited mutual ache culminates in an inane Brooklyn Bridge incident where stark-naked Nick “exposes” his smitten vulnerability, and Rachel must choose between her religion and True Love.
“Nick & Rachel” recalls late-’60s/’70s filmic flavors as its waifish, moonfaced protags struggle against the square (in this case Hasidic) Establishment. Requisite charm, however, is missing. In lieu of deeper character insight, writer-director Zalisa Rabin has soulful, sheltered Rachel playing blues harmonica (!) in her bathroom, while wacky Nick monologues to his apartment cat. The actors don’t lend enough saving personality to rescue a precious, thin conceit.
Hasidim seem to be the hot topic at this year’s S.F. Jewish Film Festival. In contrast to several concurrent titles, “Nick & Rachel’s” view feels strictly outsider-ish, even condescending. Rabin omits any deeper sense of the domestic or spiritual satisfaction that hewing to tradition affords many.
By making Rachel’s father so humorlessly authoritarian and her dates such doltish mama’s boys, Rabin suggests our heroine can find happiness only by leaving her community — where no one seems very happy, let alone romantic or sexually alive. While non-Hasidic Jews and other observers often take issue with isolationist, rule-heavy Hasidic culture — particularly re the restricted roles allowed women — this treatment strikes a glib, simplistic note.
Early “meet-cute” progress is strained enough. Later melodramatics get truly heavy-handed. “Nick & Rachel’s” formulaic nature and routine low-budget tech package would play marginally better on TV.