From the very first frames of Holy Rollers, star Jesse Eisenberg looks worried. As well he should be -- from Roger Dodger to Zombieland, anxiety has more often than not been the foundation for his performances, and it's from there that he tends to exude the naivete or courage or what-have-you that defines each role. In this case, he runs the gamut as twenty-year-old Hasidic Jew Samuel Gold.
For starters, Sam has every right to be anxious. His family wants to see him become a rabbi, maybe marry a nice local girl, even if their humble stature doesn't make him the most inviting prospect, and his father (Mark Ivanir) is too proud to let his son help out by working for someone else instead of with him in his Brooklyn textiles shop. Enter Yosef (Justin Bartha), the bad boy next door and big brother to best friend Leon (Jason Fuchs). Yosef wants Sam and Leon to travel to Europe with him -- after all, that's where the family's from -- and transport some medicine back -- you know, for rich people. Besides, it's not like anybody's about to check a Hasidic passenger's luggage...
Of course, they both reluctantly agree, but it isn't until they land that they realize what type of place Amsterdam actually is and what kind of drugs Yosef is actually asking them to smuggle back into the States. Upon their return, Leon backs out, ashamed, but Sam gets drawn into a world of red doors, red dresses and what lies behind both; he isn't greedy so much as he's proud of himself, for once in his life. And because Samuel wants to buy his mother a new stove, and because Samuel hasn't seen countless other true-life cautionary tales about drug dealing like we have, he hasn't a clue about just how steep this slippery slope will be.
Making his first feature, director Kevin Asch brings a quiet confidence to the picture by convincingly establishing both the very insular nature of the Hasidic community and the equally unassuming nature of the Ecstasy trade circa 1998. He also helps bring out Eisenberg's more winning traits as he works his way from restless to wary, from cocky to defeated, and he even tames the usually shrill Ari Graynor (Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist) into a soul similarly tempted away from a plain life, yet fully aware of how short-lived her company and kicks might be.
Their brief but tender work together serves as a delicate balance to Bartha's eagerly freewheeling antics and Fuchs' whiny warnings, and more importantly, they draw us into a story that -- as shaped by Antonio Macia's screenplay -- doesn't miss a single beat of the familiar rise-and-fall formula. Sure, there's often an authority figure or family member around to scold Samuel on his spiritual trespasses, but only Eisenberg's performance makes Holy Rollers feel less like a sermon and more like a genuine coming-of-age tale as he gets drawn closer towards temptation and farther from God.
It isn't long until the bottom falls out (at 89 minutes, it literally isn't long), and hardly exciting once it does, but at least the orthodox nature of the characters offers an interesting dichotomy with the lifestyle that Eisenberg's lead gets sucked into, and from the skeptical start, we buy that Sam really wouldn't think of any better way with which to buy himself a new stove and a new life. That's what happens when anxiety meets ambition, and this is how one man quietly makes a movie.