Throughout the 28th Annual Whitaker St. Louis International Film Festival (SLIFF), the writers at the Lens will be spotlighting their favorite narrative and documentary films on this year's festival schedule. Our critics will discuss can't-miss festival highlights, foreign gems that have already made an international splash, and smaller cinematic treasures that might have overwise been overlooked – just in time for you to snap up tickets.
Director Aliza Rosen has built her documentary feature debut Latter Day Jew almost entirely around the undeniably winning persona of writer, comedian, and podcaster H. Alan Scott. And who could blame her? Apart from being a very funny guy who leavens his fizzy, always-on drollness with profuse self-deprecation – that conspicuous tell of the gay Midwesterner – Scott has the sort of unlikely biography that would be deemed too peculiar and precious if one encountered it in fiction. Following a poor Mormon upbringing in the Heartland, Scott came out as gay, survived cancer, broke into show business, and converted to Judaism – the latter at the age of 31. This at least partly explains how a 34-year-old ex-LDS gay man finds himself preparing for his bar mitzvah, a ritual celebration normally the province of 13-year-old boys.
There’s enough heartfelt absurdity in this scenario to power a reality mini-series, and Rosen doesn’t shy away from her high-concept premise or the sparkling charisma of her subject. Much of what makes Latter Day Jew so effortlessly entertaining is that Rosen has the humility to simply stand back and lets Scott brightly riff and stumble his way through his novel situation. It certainly helps that Scott has a knack for finding the tart humor in the unlikely cultural juxtapositions of his background, delivering every quip and exclamation with a kind acerbic, self-loathing cheerfulness. In this, Scott’s style of humor feels like a perfect fit for his intersecting identities. Indeed, he seems to acknowledge that his biography reads like the setup to a hoary Catskills joke. (“A gay ex-Mormon from Missouri walks into a temple…”)
However, while Latter Day Jew has its share of low-key, fish-out-of-water humor – Look: Scott is taking bar mitzvah classes with tweens! – the film isn’t interested in eliciting laughs at the expense of either its subject or Jewish religious life. There’s an earnest seeker’s impulse underneath the witticisms, which jibes perfectly with the film’s conception of Judaism as a lifelong journey. Latter Day Jew isn’t really a documentary comedy, but a fumbling, surprisingly tender inquiry into the complexities of identity – an inquiry that just happens to be about a comedian. It’s a fine distinction, but a vital one, as it allows Rozen and Scott to approach the material seriously, even if the latter is compulsively cracking wise every step of the way.
Scott, to his credit, seems to appreciate that the film’s motivating question – How does his late arrival to Judaism impact his understanding of what it is to be a “good Jew”? – doesn’t necessarily require a definitive answer. To that end, he and Rosen structure the film less as linear narrative than a sampler platter of encounters, each one edifying a different aspect of Scott’s self-conception. Accordingly, the feature mostly involves observing as the comedian drops in on various parties: his local reform rabbi in Los Angeles; other ex-LDS Jewish converts living in NYC; his own family back in Kirkwood, Mo.; and a trans rights activist in Tel Aviv, Israel. Throughout, Scott keeps the tone wry, even when it’s obvious that he’s weighed by nagging spiritual doubts. He admits to finding a unique comfort in many aspects of the Jewish religion, but his uncertainties repeatedly come spilling out in at-times confessional discussions with others: Is formally joining this faith the right thing to do? What the hell am I doing? Who, exactly, am I?
Fortunately, Rosen leavens these psychological and spiritual anxieties with the bubbly charm of enthusiastic party-planning, following Scott as he dashes around recruiting family and friends for what he hopes will be a epic celebration to remember. Indeed, the bar mitzvah itself proves to be a crucial outlet for some of Scott’s simmering neuroses. For most 13-year-olds, a bar mitzvah is something that other people arrange; being a thirty-something adult, Scott can plan every detail of his party around the people and things he loves. (Let’s just say that the comedian’s fervent Golden Girls fandom has a place of honor in the festivities.)
While Latter Day Jew feels like a bit of an indulgent star vehicle for the high-spirited and magnetic Scott, it also possesses an underlying sincerity and frankness. One never gets the feeling that Rozen and Scott are ginning up disingenuous spiritual qualms for the sake of melodrama; it’s sweet and slight, but never artificial. Indeed, the entire film has a warm, winsome, and yet slightly overwrought sensibility – a perfect fit for the story of a newly-minted reform Jew who’s just trying to figure out his place in the world.
Latter Day Jew screens Sunday, Nov. 10 at 2:40 p.m. at the Plaza Frontenac Cinema.