Holy Rollers: The True Story of Card Counting Christians

Not to be confused with last year's Jesse Eisenberg vehicle, diverting docu "Holy Rollers" chronicles what happens when two normally well-separated worlds collide.

With: Ben Crawford, Colin Jones, Adam, Benjamin, Bradley Currah, David, Eddie, Ford, Jason, Jeremy, Mark Treas, Mike Foster, Shirley.

Not to be confused with last year’s Jesse Eisenberg vehicle, diverting docu “Holy Rollers” chronicles what happens when two normally well-separated worlds collide. Its subjects are a group of young Christians, mostly from the Pacific Northwest, who realized they could make rent and devote more time to the Lord’s business by training themselves to count cards at casino blackjack tables. Treated as a sort of jaunty nonfiction caper by helmer Bryan Storkel, pic doesn’t probe deep but sustains the entertaining lure of its novel premise. Fest travel could be followed by niche VOD, broadcast and possible theatrical gigs.

Protagonists might easily be taken for 30-ish hipsters, but appearances deceive: They’re all pastors, church leaders and/or congregants very much dedicated to their faith. (Pic’s major omission is that it doesn’t describe the precise tenets or logistics of their spiritual practices, though their sincerity is never in doubt.) Most struggle to support young families and spend time in worship-related activities while working as public schoolteachers, in construction, etc.

Then Seattle-based friends Ben Crawford and Colin Jones hit upon the idea of counting cards. Despite some hand wringing (“I hate casinos … they just suck goodness out of the world,” one participant says), they rationalize that taking funds from exploitative institutions in order to have more free time for family and flock does not constitute a sin. They consider it a calling, not a hustle.

This, however, is not an opinion shared by casino staff and gambling officials. While card counting isn’t actually illegal — being, as one person says, just “addition and division” — the venues certainly consider it cheating, and are quick to escort out, detain and/or ban any player whom their extensive surveillance suspects of using a system to beat house odds.

Despite being repeatedly thrown out of joints as a result (Crawford particularly enjoys donning outlandish disguises to elude that fate), the “Church Team” at first succeeds beyond its wildest dreams, enabling some to work at blackjack tables a mere 40 hours a month for a sustaining income distributed evenly among all investors.

But despite rigorous training and recurrent self-testing, their luck turns and they pile up some scary losses after a half-year winning streak. Some team members, with life savings or mortgages at stake, get cold feet. As the range of players and participants expands beyond a close circle of church friends, trust ebbs, and suspicions arise that someone might be stealing from the collective kitty. An agnostic newbie is fingered, though sole evidence of his guilt is one fervent believer’s claim that “the Holy Spirit told me.” (Said newcomer is duly dropped.)

Though it often seems money inevitably corrupts, the principal subjects here (most identified only by first name) are convincingly idealistic, taking this bizarre, even unseemly route not to get rich quick, but simply to better support their loved ones and ministries. Still, we find out far less about the faith that plays such a big part in their lives than we do about the gambling team’s process and the defensive tactics of highly unamused casino personnel.

Polished package makes good use of gambling-related film clips (from “Rain Man,” “The Hangover,” “South Park,” etc.), alt-rock tunes and one clever sequence of simple animation.

Popular on Variety

Holy Rollers: The True Story of Card Counting Christians

Production: A Connell Creations presentation of a BBCI production. Produced by Jason Connell, Amy Storkel. Executive producers, Bryan Storkel, Connell, Alex Gelhorn. Directed by Bryan Storkel.

Crew: Camera (color, HD), Brian Liepe; editors, Bryan Storkel, Amy Storkel, Michael Weinreich; music, Frank Lenz; sound, Martin Kittappa, Matt Sheldon; re-recording mixer, Peter S. Carlstedt; graphics, Darren Lindsay; animation, Scott McKenzie. Reviewed at Seattle Film Festival (Northwest Connections), June 12, 2011. Running time: 93 MIN.

Cast: With: Ben Crawford, Colin Jones, Adam, Benjamin, Bradley Currah, David, Eddie, Ford, Jason, Jeremy, Mark Treas, Mike Foster, Shirley.

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