There’s a very young, very online contingent of Generation Z that propagates repeated cycles of so-called “age gap discourse”: heated, often condemnatory debate over the rights or wrongs of people dating, or merely socializing, outside their immediate age group. The discussion often takes quaintly prudish forms, permitting no adult age at which such differences cease to matter, but if it circulates most heatedly among the young, it’s been handed down to them via age-old social rules and biases — ones to which Nathan Silver’s delightful “Between the Temples” gives a cheerfully flippant middle finger. Collapsing divides between old age, middle age and adolescence into a universally relatable paean to doing whatever the hell feels right for you in your own weird situation, this scruffy shoestring indie won’t be seen by the internet’s most hawkish age-gap monitors, though it has much to gently teach them.
Premiering in the U.S. Dramatic competition at Sundance, “Between the Temples” follows squarely in the tradition of Silver’s eight previous microbudget features, from its candid, on-the-fly 16mm aesthetic down to signature details like a cameo for the director’s mother Cindy. Yet six years after his last feature “The Great Pretender” — during which time he and Cindy collaborated on the wittily personal docuseries “Cutting My Mother” — Silver has returned with, if not an outright crowdpleaser, something more audience-geared than usual, buoyed by a lovely pair of performances from Jason Schwartzman and Carol Kane. There’s a sweetness here to Silver’s typically jaundiced humor, an affectionately gilded frame around his broken-off character portraiture, that feels both new and entirely natural to his work.
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We may be introduced to Ben Gottlieb (Schwartzman) at his lowest ebb — “Even my name is in the past tense,” he moans, shortly after a failed attempt to throw himself in front of a truck — but it quickly becomes apparent that he isn’t given to higher ones. A cantor at a synagogue in upstate New York, he has lost his wife, his voice and his faith in roughly that order, and moved back in with his doting mother Meira (Caroline Aaron) and her meddling wife Judith (Dolly de Leon) while he nurses his grief into a terminal state of ennui, assisted by a newfound addiction to mudslide cocktails. (It says much for fortysomething Ben’s boyish character that a barman picks this milkshakey tipple for him.)
His overseeing rabbi Bruce (a droll Robert Smigel) can’t offer much assistance beyond gauche attempts to match him with his unmoored actress daughter Gabby (Madeline Weinstein) — “The one I told you about, the mess,” he says encouragingly. But it’s a chance encounter with another elder, his former high school music teacher Carla (Kane), that shakes Ben out of his self-involved funk. With a few breathing exercises, she repairs his singing talent, but it’s his faltering relationship to his own Judaism that she more significantly challenges with an unorthodox-in-all-senses request: Having been born Jewish but never confirmed her faith, she asks him to tutor her for a late-life bat mitzvah.
Utterly nonplussed, Ben’s first response is to tell the daffy septuagenarian that she’s “beyond” this typically adolescent rite of passage. But Carla is insistent, and the rabbi (glad of any donations) acquiescent: Soon enough, Ben is schooling her in both the Torah and the rules of the Kosher kitchen. She proves a quick study, even if she’s unwilling to give up her favorite cheeseburgers for her renewed faith, but there’s something driving this reversed teacher-student relationship beyond a mutual enthusiasm for their subject. Carla and Ben are kindred spirits on deeper terms than the shared interests and algorithmic commonalities that define the dating game; they understand not just each other’s passions but their anxieties and disappointments, their distance from a wider world that has never fully included either of them.
Is that love? It’s hard to say, though if they weren’t 30 years apart in age, we’d probably classify it more easily as such. Silver’s spry, humane script, co-written with C. Mason Wells, nods plainly to the oddball May-December relationship of “Harold and Maude,” particularly in the pairing of Ben’s gawky diffidence with Carla’s zesty nonconformity. But where Hal Ashby’s 1971 classic readily announced itself as an unusual romance, this elegantly twinned character study takes longer to reveal what Ben and Carla want from each other, and gives the viewer ample time and leeway to decide what we want for each of them. Carla’s bat mitzvah lessons are more than a quirky meet-cute premise: The completion of her individual sense of personhood is an objective the film takes seriously, even as it provides ample scope for gentle culture-clash comedy.
Silver’s warm sense of care for easily-mocked characters is complemented by a successful foray into star casting: While both are playing effectively to type — nebbishy and kooky, respectively — Schwartzman and Kane bring humanizing notes of mania and melancholy to their established comic personae. These complicating folds of character seem partly enabled by Silver’s off-the-cuff filmmaking style, but also by each other: Aptly for a film about the liberating joys of unlikely, unexpected personal connection, “Between the Temples” runs on the palpable chemistry between two eccentric character players enjoying a shared leading spotlight.
They are supported by an ace ensemble matching the stars’ precise balance between loose comic mugging and fine, lived-in texture. Aaron is a husky, jangly delight as Ben’s permissive mother, while De Leon, recently the salty standout of “Triangle of Sadness,” extends her scene-stealing credentials: She’s both very funny and thornily moving as a Jewish convert whose approach to her chosen religion is as zealously rulebound as Carla’s is airily selective. Silver’s casual filmmaking style, meanwhile, situates his cast in a dual atmosphere of jagged realism and rough-and-tumble farce: Sean Price Williams’ handheld lensing and John Magary’s editing are both antsy in all the right ways, mirroring the characters’ restlessness, their nervousness, and their occasional, ill-planned, briefly glorious lunges at rebellion, moral and spiritual naysayers be damned.
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