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An Endearing Take on the Struggles of Leaving Brooklyn for Manhattan
Debut writer/director Debra Kirschner manages to steer clear of the clichés she is driving towards in "The Tollbooth" to create an endearing film.
The speed trap she has set up is the oft-told tale of the college senior graduating into Manhattan from bus and tunnel outskirts (hence the title, reinforced with many shots of bridges) for romance and to make it as an artist. But rather than another update of "La Boheme", we see a more realistic portrait of a young woman with close ties to her loving, religious Jewish family, and struggling with her feminism and day jobs to balance her muse, ambition and love life.
One of its charms is its fond understanding that she is young and immature, and that even though her parents have to bend, she also doesn't have all the right answers. No one here is an overnight success, let alone sure of themselves. And the apartments are believably small (so I was concerned they were breathing in all that paint in close quarters).
Marla Sokoloff is adorable and heart-tugging as the central "Sarabeth Cohen" in a much more substantive role than we've seen her in television shows where she's been able to shine in only small but memorable parts.
She has a wonderful rapport with a winning Rob McElhenney, who reins in the goofiness exhibited in his sit com "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia", for a whole lot of charm and gentile boyfriend credibility as engineer "Simon Stanton". There's a wonderful scene where we can tell he's in the room just from an extended focus on her face. Unfortunately, his Pennsylvania relatives are portrayed a bit unfairly as stereotype little boxes suburbanites with more than a little anti-Semitism. There is a nice, sensitive twist in one scene as "Sarabeth" tries to fit in with them.
The intense central family is very warmly and for the most part realistically portrayed, as we see them through a year of Jewish holidays; the family is comfortably non-Orthodox observant Jewish and their observances are portrayed accurately. Though Tovah Feldshuh's mother is a broad portrayal and seems more like a grandmother than mother, it sets the stage for how the adult sisters fall into their childhood relationships, repeating Talmudic-like discussions and arguments when they are home - "the smart one" med student (Liz Stauber), the pregnant, nurturing, eager to please middle child (Idina Menzel), and the baby creative girl.
While there's always universality to leaving the nest, these folks and some of their rhetorical arguments seem a bit out-dated, more like boomers, as if some contemporary references are thrown in for hasty contemporaneity. At one point "Sarabeth"s accused of being "too '90's," but she really sounds more '70's as she criticizes her mother for staying at home raising kids. These twentysomethings don't even seem to e-mail, listen to Ipods, or use cell phones.
I'm not sure the chronology works out about the relatives she's named for who died in the Holocaust, but the stories she has grown up with about them through her immigrant father (a charming Ronald Guttman who can quote Jewish sages such as Kafka or Hillel or Woody Allen as needed) and her ongoing connection to them is very moving, especially --very unusually for films--as she learns to embrace her heritage rather than reject it as she works hard to find her own artistic voice and style. Smoothly incorporated into the story, the scenes with NYC's gay synagogue are very contemporary and a nice counterpoint to most films by showing the potential for progressive, inclusionary Judaism as an alternative.
For a small indie film without a budget for pop tunes, the music by David Shire is lovely.
Even as we start to tear up a bit at her unpredictable choices, we root for Sokoloff's "Sarabeth".
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