Living in Brooklyn, young Hasid Sam Gold (Jesse Eisenberg) moves through tepid landscapes, working in his father’s fabric store and studying to become a rabbi. He spends his time reading, eating dinner with his family, smiling at girls he’s not allowed to talk to, and watching porn through his bedroom window on the neighbor’s television. Intended to be the dullest point of Holy Rollers — contrasted starkly by the bright lights, women, and drugs to come in the second act — it is in fact the most engaging and heartfelt part of the story. Indeed, while there’s something genuine in director Kevin Asch’s vision when focusing on Sam’s life within the Hasidic community, it all disappears once Sam begins working with an operation that smuggles ecstasy from Amsterdam to New York.
Based on a true story, Holy Rollers plays as a sort of cautionary tale, the likes of which have been previously explored in films like Thirteen and Party Monster (to name but two of dozens). These films, like Holy Rollers, invariably start with youthful rebellion and innocence lost, set up by hallmark moments with friends and family. They then move through the need for a new community as the protagonist meets the Bad Influence who draws them into a new world of seemingly endless possibility. For Sam, this influence is his neighbor Yosef (Justin Bartha, in one of the few engaging performances in the film), a fellow Hasid youth who works for a drug smuggler and provides the vulnerable Sam — impoverished and recently rejected — the opportunity to both make some fast cash and see cultures outside of their own closed community.
The general outline for the youthful-drug-culture-cautionary-tale continues as Holy Rollers spirals towards conclusion in a haze of drug-addled cinematic purgatory filled with handheld shots, swirling bright lights, and cheap special effects. A little fun is had, traumatic experiences ensue, and ultimately there is the realization that the community and camaraderie they were looking for in drugs and partying was actually in the friends and family they abandoned. Too often films of this ilk do nothing more than follow this path to the great boredom of audiences who have seen it before, and this film is no exception. But rather than emphasizing the drug-induced terror you might see in Trainspotting or Requiem for a Dream, Holy Rollers twists the narrative a bit by focusing on the perils of the drug trade and the resulting culture clashes while maintaining plenty of the obligatory and tedious party scenes.
But the slight deviation from the typical trajectory isn’t enough to carry Holy Rollers, especially when the film insists on keeping Sam’s character at arm’s length. There is a great battle taking place within him, something that is alluded to throughout the story (such as his Hasidic upbringing being the reason for his apprehension in the drug trade). But the film never digs deep enough. Instead of utilizing what is distinctive, it becomes a buried artifact that is merely tangential. And without truly delving into the class and culture differences, these implications ensure that the film feels as formulaic as any other drug movie. Sadly, the “risks” these characters took in the film are as equally boring as the “risks” the filmmakers took in making Holy Rollers.