Natalie Portman's Directorial Debut & Paper Towns' Nat WolffBy Gerri Miller
See how Portman is making her big splash in Israel and don't miss Paper Towns with Nat WolffGo To Pop Culture
If the zany and stylistically innovative Swedish film Bit by Bit is any indication, Jewish family dynamics can be remarkably similar in Sweden and the United States, particularly if the grandparents are Holocaust survivors.
The film observes life through the eyes of 25-year-old J (Sunil Munshi), who plays Nintendo obsessively, to the degree that it interferes with his relationship with his live-in non-Jewish girlfriend Lina (Malin Larsson), his academic record, and his self-esteem. While he sees a therapist about this problem, it is not apparent that the therapy has helped.
The film begins with views of J's bedroom, including his Nintendo figures, and then takes us into a Nintendo game, seeing the action from J's eyes and hearing the sounds he hears as he plays.
J wishes to please himself as well as his loved ones, but the only way he can imagine doing both is to lie to all who love him about who he really is, how he spends his time and what his aspirations are. When his father or grandfather asks him if he is planning to go to graduate school in business, a constant refrain throughout the film, J always says yes, although he does not truly intend to. When Lina comes home from work, he pretends that he has been studying when in fact he has been playing Nintendo. She, however, perceives that he is sweaty and immediately realizes that he only sweats when he is aroused, something that occurs not from being with another lover, but from playing Nintendo.
J's conflict between pleasing himself and meeting the expectations of others comes to a head when his acceptance to enter the Nintendo World Cup Competition in Los Angeles arrives, and he learns that, unfortunately for him, it will take place on the first day of Passover.
Even though J has been living with his girlfriend for five years, he has never invited her to attend his family's seder, as he doesn't want to deal with their disapproval that she is not Jewish. This year J attends the seder with his usual secret about his uninvited girl friend, as well as a new secret--that he has cab waiting outside to take him to the airport the minute the seder is over, so he can fly to Los Angeles for the competition.
In anticipation of the seder, J conceives of it in four parts, like a Nintendo game, with four cups of wine each followed by an hour of talk. Then, during the seder, J periodically tunes out, imagining his family in Nintendo sequences. It is a clever device, which enables us to observe how difficult it is to alternate between the frenzied action of Nintendo games and life lived in "real" time.
For J, the seder progresses excruciatingly slowly. He does all he can to move it along, and finally, the moment the fourth cup has been sipped, he abruptly stands up and tells his family that he has to leave, that he has plans to meet a Jewish friend. Unfortunately, his pesky younger brother blurts out that J has a non-Jewish girlfriend and is probably going to see her.
In J's over-the-top family, this horrifying news provokes the anger of his grandfather Chaim (Jan Malmsjö), who announces that he didn't survive the Holocaust so that his grandson can go and marry outside of his religion. Chaim then runs outside to chop down a Christmas tree for J, who, he predicts, will spend the rest of his life celebrating Christmas and eating ham. The scene is both dramatic and comic, as is the entire depiction of J's family.
When J tries to calm his grandfather and prevent him from chopping down the tree, his grandfather inadvertently seriously injures J with the axe, and J is rushed to the hospital.
Much of the action is told in flashbacks from J's hospital ward, where he recounts to his fellow patients how he ended up in the hospital. The story inevitably involved explaining his unusual family to his Swedish fellow patients. When his family comes to visit him in the hospital, their actions comically confirm his prior depiction of them.
While the tone of the film is zany, it does make some serious points about the effects of video games on one's ability to live a normal life, the importance of being honest about whom one is, and the strong ties within even extremely dysfunctional Jewish families.
Director and screenwriter Jonathan Metzger succeeds in creating a believable--though over the top--Jewish family, one whose faults are all too apparent, but whose closeness despite those faults is tangible.
I found the film entertaining and thought provoking and would particularly recommend it to families with children who love video games, as well as to interdating and intermarried couples.
This film was shown at the Boston Jewish Film Festival in 2003. Look for this film at your local Jewish film festival.