A trainee rabbi questions his religion in “Jewboy,” a consistently involving character study set in Sydney’s Hasidic community. Australian writer-director Tony Krawitz emerges as a talent to watch with a strongly focused comingof-age tale centered on a virginal 23-year-old male. Short running time will impose commercial constrictions, but pic commissioned for Aussie pubcaster SBS merits the attention of quality broadcasters and niche distributors. It should enjoy a substantial fest run following its Cannes rollout in Un Certain Regard.
In a mysterious branch of Judaism, frustrated rabbi’s son Yuri (Ewen Leslie) uncomfortably participates in the preparation of his father’s body for burial in Israel. He concludes formalities with the traditional pouring of sand in his father’s eyes and the prophetic words “please forgive me father for what I am about to do.”
Soon after, Yuri begins questioning God’s existence. This alarms his grandmother Minnie (Naomi Watson), an old-school European type, and uncle Isaac (Nicholas Eadie), a stern custodian of community standards. Yuri’s faltering faith, nonetheless, spirals into the pursuit of taboo physical intimacies.
Yuri tries his first such risky pleasure with Rivka (Saskia Burmeister), his wife-apparent. In a scene with considerable erotic charge, Yuri places his fingers close to hers, an act only a technicality shy of transgressing Hasidic laws forbidding physical contact prior to marriage.
Next, Yuri becomes infatuated with Sarita (Leah Vandenberg), a Fijian-Indian beauty working at a car wash. It’s here Krawitz’s meditations on the power of human touch come into sharp focus as Yuri’s desire for contact with Sarita spills out in a flurry of impossibly grand romantic overtures that are pointedly intercut with various temptations and his latenight prowlings at strip clubs and porn shops.
Krawitz avoids sensationalism, however, and maintains a resolutely low-key, inquisitive tone in synch with Yuri’s tentative walk on the wild side.
Leslie’s convincing, quietly formidable performance speaks vividly not just about the Hasidic experience, but about the difficulties facing young members of any conservative religious group in a modern day, liberal-minded city.
All thesping is noteworthy, with Vandenberg a sweetly down to earth presence and Watson making the most of the part of a well written matriarch with more to offer than standard cooking and matchmaking duties.
Mature direction by Krawitz in his first longer-form drama indicates a bright future for the helmer, although a minor influence from his student filmmaking days remains in his overuse of lingering big city vistas and exclusive reliance on a hand-held camera.
Roving lens of d.p. Greig Fraser is mostly on the mark, though visual restlessness undermines a few quieter moments. All other tech work combines impressively to make the contrast between the gray claustrophobia of the Hasidic world and garish neons of Sydney by night a striking one.
Quality of Super 16-to-DVD transfer viewed was first class. A digital-to-35mm blowup is set to unspool today.