I expected quite a few things from Zach Braff's long-buffered Garden State follow-up Wish I Was Here: a brooding template, quirky imagery, Shins music. But I did not expect consistent, detailed conversations about Jewish law and scripture. Sure, Garden State included nods to the religion and culture (with which Braff was raised) but hardly to the degree that we see in Wish I Was Here. From the very first scene, in which Braff's character's daughter Grace (played by Joey King, a highlight in the flick) cites her rabbi's admonition of foul language, we're embedded in a distinctly Jewish atmosphere — one that, at times, gets so specific that I wondered what the experience of watching such a film might be for someone who didn't grow up with the religion, like I did.
Full scenes revolve around the practices of Grace's adherence to the religion, without much exposition as to what we're seeing. Braff chauffers his viewers through the sequences poking fun at or offering affectionate nods to the particulars of Yeshiva academia with a "Get it?" or "Remember that?" attitude, insinuating a familiarity that the majority of his audience — if even close to a direct ratio of the population in large — probably won't have.
Movies about Christianity have the luxury of going specific — no matter what religion you subscribe to, if you grew up in the Western World you more than likely know the basic gist of what goes on in church. But when it comes to Judaism, direct depictions can feel esoteric.
It's not as though Braff is the only director to venture the illustration of Jewish religion and culture in a mainstream movie (as "indie" as Braff's persona is, he's still well-known enough for his work to garner public attention). We think immediately of Woody Allen and Mel Brooks, two directors who have frequently colored their movies with a Jewish context. The difference, however, between the Allen/Brooks methods (which are, furthermore, very different from one another) and that of Braff is that you're more likely to see Allen take a jab at nebbishy stereotypes or Brooks make a crass crack about circumcisions than you are to see either delve into the particulars of the day-to-day at a Yeshiva school.
Focus Features via Everett Collection
A recent film that drove us fairly deep into Jewish education is A Serious Man, the Coen Brothers dark comedy that centers around a physics professor (Michael Stuhlbarg) and his son's disciplinary tribulations at Hebrew school. While the Coen Brothers dabble quite frequently in the fringes of our world, we're not surprised to see them deliver such a vivid portrait of Judaism in the Midwest. In fact, A Serious Man devotes itself to the idea that Stuhlbarg's family is stamped with an "outsider" label,
But Braff adheres to no such idea, which is at once puzzling and quite gratifying. With the exception of a single one-off joke from a gentile neighbor boy, Judaism is never meant to feel like anything but "the norm." We're invited into the film through the Bloom family, and as such are welcomed into their customs, which are treated with the same engagement, familiarity, and normative mentality with which any Martin Scorsese film would treat Catholicism.
It's an interesting, and impressive, move by Braff. Although we've seen Judaism depicted on the screen time and time again, Wish I Was Here is a unique example of a Jewish movie: one that isn't driven by a narrative entrenched in Jewish history but is foremost reverent to the religion; one that treats it not so much like an "outer tier" culture but a central, basic, human practice. As loving as the tributes to Judaism of Allen, Brooks, and the Coens are, they are often inclined to approach the religion as a "something else." But Wish I Was Here just treats it as the something.