Widowed cantors, music teachers, matchmaking moms, tuneless rabbis and jilted daughters come together in a Jewish symphony of comic dysfunction, in Between The Temples.
This review is part of our critics' round-up of six of the best titles at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival.
OF ALL THE dive bars in all the places in all of upstate New York, a cantor and his primary school music teacher happen to walk into the same one. The cantor Ben (Jason Schwartzman) has been in a free fall ever since he lost his wife; the teacher Carla (Carol Kane), now retired, wishes to get her bat mitzvah as she never got one as a young woman. It takes a bit of convincing but Ben agrees to take her on as his student. With each lesson, the two learn from each other. As they forge a deeper connection, at once therapeutic and intimate, they become each other’s pick-me-up, finding something close to the kind of emotional stability that can make them whole again.
In lesser hands, Between the Temples could have easily ended up becoming a one-joke movie that overstayed its welcome. It is to the credit of director Nathan Silver and his co-writer C Mason Wells that the film manages to strike a nice balance between quirky and perceptive. Playing two lost souls who find each other during a rough patch and free themselves into the safekeeping of the other, Schwartzman and Kane seize on the rare opportunity to headline a project to show just how good they are at portraying awkward vulnerability without overplaying or losing a shred of their offbeat charms.
Widowed cantors, music teachers, matchmaking moms, tuneless rabbis and jilted daughters all come together in a Jewish symphony of comic dysfunction, scattered with poignant grace notes, and playing to its own droll beat. Basement doors won’t stay shut and seem to shriek in pain. Rabbis putt golf balls into a shofar. Restaurant menus are large enough to mask one’s misery. Dead wives and wannabe lovers are lookalikes. Bartenders mumble what everyone else is thinking. There is an offbeat lightness to the film that seems to match the spirit of Ben and Carla's liberating relationship.
When we first meet Ben, he is a widower still in mourning and struggling with his faith. Not only has he lost his voice, he has lost his will to live. In an early scene, he lies down in the middle of the road, urging a truck to just run him over. Since his wife’s passing, Ben has moved in with his moms, Judith (Dolly De Leon) and Meira (Caroline Aaron), the former more meddlesome than the latter. As the film opens, Ben is confronted by what seems like an intervention with the moms advising him to “see a doctor.” Only what they mean is not therapy, but a date they have arranged with a cosmetic surgeon. With a simple turn of phrase or a throwaway line (“In Judaism we don’t have heaven or hell, we just have upstate New York”), Silver introduces an essential dose of levity to the proceedings.
Annoyed that the truck won’t run him over, Ben instead catches a ride to a local bar. A few mudslides later, he ends up picking a fight with a loud patron, gets knocked out, and springs up to the concerned face of Carla. He tells her he’s a cantor; she tells him she’s an Aquarius. He tells her about losing his alcoholic novelist wife to a freak accident; she tells him about her wish to get a bat mitzvah, having been denied one because her parents were Communists and having turned away from her faith upon marrying a gentile.
As the two grow closer, the film makes space for moments of genuine tenderness. In one such moment, Carla makes Ben repeat a story she shares about her 13th birthday to check if he is really paying attention; Ben does, almost word for word, an exercise of listening as much as in empathy. Between practising Hebrew gutturals and gorging on non-kosher burgers, Ben’s slowly renewing zest for life finds a warm complement in Carla’s free-spirited nature. To call Carla a manic pixie dream bubbe, however, downplays how well Kane builds the character from the inside out and hints at an abyss of loneliness that provides its own depth to the central dynamic.
Meanwhile, Judith and Meira remain so set in their own plans on how to help their son, signing him up for J dates and setting him up with the rabbi’s actress daughter Gabby (Madeline Weinstein), that they fail to realise he has been finding happiness on his own terms and at his own pace. All the disparate interests collide at a family dinner of confessional unravellings, screaming contests and teary breakdowns, the whiplash of which is captured expertly through sharp writing, overlapping sounds, quick zooms, and jerky edits — all on grainy 16mm. How the film ends may not be surprising; the joy is in how it gets there. For Ben and Carla, their bond offers a salve — or maybe only a brief reprieve — at a difficult point in their lives; what comes next is entirely beside the point.
Between the Temples had its world premiere at Sundance Film Festival 2024 as part of its US Dramatic Competition section.