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Reprinted with permission from j, the Jewish news weekly of northern California. Visit www.Jewishsf.com.
For a Catholic from Staten Island, director Chris Terrio displays a pretty good feel for assimilated young Jewish professionals in the relationship drama Heights.
"I didn't feel like a cultural stranger," says the unassuming 28-year-old, who makes his feature film debut with the pointed Manhattan ensemble piece. "I've been to as many seders as I've been to Easter celebrations, for sure."
As an English literature major at Harvard, and then in the theater scene in New York, Terrio found plenty of Jewish compatriots to whom he gravitated.
"As far as the slightly neurotic characteristics and sense of humor that are sometimes associated with Jewish characters, those are my friends and that's me," Terrio says with a wry smile. "I've been made an honorary New York Jew by association, because that's the world I live in."
Heights revolves around Jonathan (James Marsden of "X-Men"), a Jewish lawyer with an enormous secret, and his non-Jewish fianceé Isabel (Elizabeth Banks), a photographer beginning to have vague doubts about their upcoming nuptials.
The film unfolds on a Friday that extends deep into the night, and also stars Jesse Bradshaw as a rising actor drawn into the family's web and Glenn Close as a Shakespearean stage superstar who's also Isabel's mother.
Heights, which opens June 24, had its genesis in a one-act play by Amy Fox, a Colorado-born Reform Jew and Amherst College grad now based in Brooklyn. That original scene comprises the film's climax; Fox, in collaboration with Terrio, imagined the back story and scripted the events that lead to the fateful encounter.
The day starts with Isabel shooting a rooftop Jewish wedding, featuring a ritual she doesn't understand.
"The breaking of the glass is a central symbol in the film, even though it's not quite as explicit as it might be," Terrio explains. "Amy and I talked about the idea of having to destroy something in order to build it up again. In the course of this night, all of these relationships are destroyed in order that people can build themselves up anew."
As for the meaning of the broken glass, Jonathan and Isabel turn to Rabbi Mendel (George Segal) for an explanation at their prenuptial meeting that afternoon. Just a few hours later, unexpectedly, Jonathan will seek additional counsel from the spiritual leader.
"The original rabbi character was a younger Reform rabbi," Terrio recalls. "But I thought the confidant that Jonathan needs is someone who's a little bit older and more of an authority figure. Not an authority figure in the sense of the stock character of the wise man, but somebody whom you can joke around with but [can] then turn on a dime and be a real person."
Jewish viewers--and collectors of movie faux pas--will wonder why Mendel isn't with his congregation on a Friday night. Terrio, who thankfully lacks the annoying self-confidence and smug self-satisfaction of most young filmmakers, laughs and flinches simultaneously.
"You've found our Achilles' heel," he replies. "Originally, the whole film was set on a Saturday. I sat with Amy and we had to choose our battles. And we thought that if we could keep all the plates spinning, maybe at a certain point people would suspend their disbelief. When it came down to the logistical problem of the Friday [night] rabbi, we decided it was just more important to have the character than to stick to what's real."
Asked if there are any Jewish authors or literary works on his wish list of future film projects, Terrio strains to remember titles.
"The Jewish writers who I most admire tend to be a little bit less complacent in the way that they think about the world," he says. "They're more questioning of things. Whether it's Tony Kushner or Philip Roth or whoever, there's a sense that things aren't taken as givens."
A suggestion that a remake of Portnoy's Complaint might be a good idea gains Terrio's assent.
"Possibly, yeah," he responds. "Portnoy's Complaint is actually the one that I always think I could do something with."