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Prayers Answered: 'Lior' Comes Home!
In a modern-day movie milieu where the au courant currency exchange at the box office seems to be blood money, does a nice movie that is heartfelt and haimisch have a prayer?
If it's "Praying With Lior," which focuses on the davening dervish of a phenomenon that is Lior Liebling, it does. Indeed, it has more than that; "Lior," like the Bar Mitzvah boy who gives it its beat, has become a national sensation.
The film of the tallit-toting youngster from Philadelphia has gone from fringe festival to mainstream menschhood. And, after a long luminous projected path from coast to coast, it is finally making its Philadelphia premiere, this Friday at the Bala Theater.
The story of Lior, born with Down syndrome, is as upbeat and engaging as a "Rocky" on religion, in which Judaism and its rites and rituals proved the right path to happiness and socialization for the son of Reconstructionist Rabbi Mordecai Liebling, his late wife Rabbi Devorah Bartnoff and super stepmother Lynne Iser.
In a way, Lior is a one-man minyan, a combustible crowd of energy with an encyclopedic grasp of his religious roots that is at once laden with happiness and tears.
Ilana Trachtman's fine film tracks his path with empathy and emphatic soulful shout-outs for a young man who brings his disease out of the closet all the while attired in a Bar Mitzvah suit.
Lior is a natural headliner and has been since 1997, when Devorah wrote an article for the Jewish Exponent about her sun-filled son shortly before she passed away. In passing, her piece gave the film its name -- and the newspaper a role in the film itself.
And if the Jewish Exponent is ready for its close-up, then so is Lior, who is the closest thing to a natural as Roy Hobbs with a kipah on his kup rather than baseball cap.
With a backdrop of the Bar Mitzvah of "the little rebbe" at Philadelphia's Congregation Mishkan Shalom polished off with a party at the Politz Hebrew Academy, "Praying With Lior" refuses to prey on pity.
Indeed, why should there be any for a braveheart boychick and his brood of brothers and sisters -- brother Ben does not make an appearance in the film, which is abetted by strong roles for brother Yoni, and sisters Reena and Anna, whose antsy annoyance with her attention-grabbing brother is one of the film's brasher delights -- whose loving liturgy is as much "We Are Family" as "Ein Keloheinu."
Trachtman, whose triumphant track record includes Emmy Award-winning work for PBS and a trove of trophies for other credits, which she has accumulated on HBO, Showtime and other showcases, marks her independent film debut as director with a searing sense of independent spirit.
A smile movie? Yes, and she readily acknowledges such with a smile in her voice. Indeed, Lior Liebling's attire -- and attitude -- comes equipped at times with his own Borscht Belt as he challenges the perceived Down syndrome status quo with quips that are at once disarming and charming.
There is a "Take my strife -- please!" one-liner leitmotif that underlines his guts and gumption amid a forest of fans and family eager to help.
"He has such a charisma," she notes, "the ability to be unconditionally loving. He inspires that in audiences."
It is the warm shock of witnessing a comical kid with Down syndrome asymptomatic of preconceived conditions.
Not that there aren't problems. Interviews with family are familiar for those with a child whose challenged status can be stultifying.
It takes a villager to understand the vicissitudes of life, and in the movie realm, Trachtman untraps the unexpected. Communal celebrations are combustible with Lior at its center; lauded by some as a "spiritual genius" and by others as a genuine phenomenon, Lior has a divine sense of davening, rocking and roiling the expectations of those who think of his status as limiting.
At his Bar Mitzvah, he beams from the bimah; an arresting aura of rejoicing emanates from this Ark angel, a cherubic cheerleader for Torah.
"A spiritual genius? It's all in the definition," says the filmmaker who defines herself as "ill-equipped to make such a comment."
She feels more adept with the equipment she lugged around for so long from shoot to shoot. "There is no doubt he has a talent," she says of her star. "He has that presence and focus that are unequivocally inspiring. He is a veritable onion; the deeper you get, the more interesting."
Internecine subplots arose, too, as the family found its way to the camera. "Lior," attests its director, "could have been a 10-hour version," stepping beyond Lior to focus on "step-parenting, kids with disabilities, brothers and sisters."
Relating to the Lieblings was a relative choice; Trachtman has no one in her family with Down syndrome.
"While I have an eccentric in my family," she says she has not been conditioned to the unusual phenomenon she encountered here. "I have never seen anyone like Lior praying."
Audience prayers are answered for those who don't want Down syndrome to be treated with treacle. "I didn't want this to be like an after-school TV special," says Trachtman.
After all, she spoke with "many parents of children with special needs" to help her get the right tone for the topic. But "the Lior family and story have a certain kind of appealing translatable quality." And if anyone claims that Lior is being depicted as a poster child for Down syndrome, Trachtman has her own post-it note to that contention.
"They are all exemplary," she says of Lior and his family, as well as the Jewish communal commitment, which "serves as a model for how inclusion can work, how the community creates situations where his strengths are valued."
It is all in service to "a child who loves being in services."
Not that service was without disruptions. The filmmaker feels that there is a filmy overcoat of obstreperousness in the Jewish community, where the "culturally disabled in Judaism" may have a harder time of it in an environment "where we value intellectual prowess."
Pray for change? In notes on this production, it is averred that more than "54 million Americans are disabled. Less than half of our houses of worship are handicapped-accessible. This number alone speaks to the abandonment of the disabled in faith communities."
That "Praying With Lior" inspires a faithful following is attested to by spillover crowds at the many film festivals the movie has played at, where it has been hailed for not playing with emotions, garnering award after award -- and a wow of a reception in New York during its commercial run, "where it had the biggest gross of the week."
But films about disabilities can gross out those who think that "films that are good for you sounds like eating broccoli," says Trachtman.
If some audiences eat up the emotional sustenance of "Lior," it is after they have supped on suppositions. Attracting a catholic audience, "Lior" nevertheless can't get to the table with some Jewish film festivals. "It is surprising," she says, so disappointed that "our crowd" would perhaps prefer forming crowded lines elsewhere.
Audiences are not to blame -- the film is a crowd-pleaser -- but perhaps the theater owners view such movies about the disabled as a portion of the weak. Also, amazingly, "after we got the Audience Award in Boston and got great reviews, several Jewish film festivals turned us down."
Turns out, she fears, that too many people think a Jewish film "should either be about the Holocaust or an Israeli conflict."
Conflicted by such receptions, she has only to turn to the Liebling family and Lior himself to bring the smiles back.
The times they are a'changing, and this time around is no different: "Lior, who turns 17 in April, looks like a young man; he definitely looks different; he has a maturity about him, with enormous social skills."
If the film is a social study, it is one with a history of happiness for the director, who still "talks to the family four times a week," and often travels to Philadelphia as the movie opens wider and wider -- as wide as the arms awaiting her from the Lieblings, who have embraced her as family.
"Lior and his family and his community have changed my life," says Trachtman of this reel revolution she has helped engender. "They have given me a standard; I have never seen before such a level of love, values, goodness and respect."
And a shining light -- which the name Lior means in Hebrew -- emanating from such a special child so besotted with siddurim.
Indeed, Trachtman's career track is making book on the importance of Jewish rituals, raising the bar with her next project, collecting Bar/Bat Mitzvah speeches into a timeless tome.
For now, however, the spotlight tracks her to Bala. Indeed, now that "Lior" is coming home, does the youngster consider himself a movie star? In a way, laughs Trachtman.
But in another way, he has turned movie critic. Ask him what he thinks of "Praying With Lior" and he becomes the Leonard Maltin of local movie mavens, giving it four Stars of David.
"I love it!" shouts the not-so-disinterested davener with a divine dimension.