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bat-mizvah-sandler.jpg

‘You Are So Not Invited to My Bat Mitzvah’ Is a Charming Nepo Affair

By Seth Freilich | Film | August 28, 2023 |

By Seth Freilich | Film | August 28, 2023 |


bat-mizvah-sandler.jpg

Under Jewish law and practice, when children turn 13,* they’re considered responsible for their actions and are adults in nature, though certainly not in character. This switch flip to being a “grown-up” is memorialized by the bar/bat/b’nai mitzvah ceremony (traditionally, boys had a bar mitzvah, girls a bat mitzvah, and groups a b’nai mitzvah, but now “b’nai mitzvah” is also generally considered gender neutral and used by many even when flying solo). But what these ceremonies are really about, shrouded in “becoming an adult” structure, is finding a deeper connection with yourself, your Jewish identity, and your community (and, if you’re religious, with God). As a result, for even the most secular of Jewish households, there is typically something powerful and deeply personal about the ceremony and ritual of it all.

*Under conservative Jewish law, girls actually hit this at 12. These days, the rationale for the age difference is that girls physiologically age faster, but I suspect this has a deep root in some gross, misogynistic marrying-off traditions. In the US before 1922, girls weren’t even allowed to have full and proper ceremonies in a synagogue, reading from the Torah, like boys.

There are two key components to a b’nai mitzvah. The first part is in the synagogue, the actual ceremony ritual, where you read from the Torah and give a little speech. Growing up, this was the important part. For example, my bar mitzvah was rushed a smidge so that my dying mother, to whom Judaism was deeply important, could be there in more than just spirit as I stood in front of the Torah ark, poorly hacking my way through some Hebrew and ad-libbing a speech (because I was too teenager-indifferent to bother writing one in advance). The second part comes after — the party. When I was growing up, these were sometimes also in the synagogue. If the kid’s parent had a little money, maybe it was at a country club type of place.

But in the last two decades, the parties have become the thing for many. They are a decadent status symbol for the kids as well as the parents — think My Super Sweet 16. As the introductory voiceover in Netflix’s You Are So Not Invited to My Bat Mitzvah explains, “everyone knows an iconic adult life hinges on how it starts … the theme, the food, the entrance video.” The film uses this bat-mitzvah-as-status-symbol concept, particularly honing in on the kids’ grand entrances, as the hook into a fairly standard coming-of-age/young adult story.

Stacy (Sunny Sandler) is anxious about her upcoming bat mitzvah, has a love/hate relationship with her older sister Ronnie (Sandie Sandler), has loving parents (played by Adam Sandler and Idina Menzel), has a crush on a dumb classmate, has an amazing relationship with her best friend Lydia (Samantha Lorraine), likes her nerdy friends but really wants to party with the “cooler” kids, etc. You could probably paint the broad strokes of the film’s plot from there, with the romantic entanglements and friendship drama that, of course, ensues. But formulas like this exist for a reason — they’re comfortable, and when done right, they work. Such is the case here.

Now, up in the headline, I called this Adam Sandler’s film and that’s not really true. Yes, Happy Madison produced this film, and its fingerprints are on this in a surprisingly good way (more on that in a beat), but I used that to try to get your attention because this is a film that deserves some attention. The credit really goes to director Sammi Cohen and especially writers Alison Peck and Fiona Rosenbloom. This trio has taken that standard formula and carefully stuffed it full of charm and laughs. I say “carefully” because it’s easy to cram out a flat teenage “comedy” with a few “oh that’s amusing lines” that just feels paint-by-the-numbers. Here, though, they take the time to make it legitimately funny while also feeling grounded and real.

The perfect encapsulation of this is a brief moment early in the film. Sisters Stacy and Ronnie are arguing over something, leading to this quick bit:

Stacy: I’ll kill you, Ronnie.

Ronnie: Not if I stab you first!

Dad: …oh that’s nice.

Anyone who has kids or has been around teen siblings for more than about five minutes can feel the truth of this bit deep in their core. The sisters are mean, but do love each other, and because the parents know the love is there, all they can do is sigh at the meanness. It’s a funny scene, but it’s also a true scene. The film is littered with moments like this.

The movie is also full of period jokes. That’s where the Happy Madison roots particularly show, in the ostensibly juvenile and gross humor. But, it’s neatly folded into the film in a way that, again, feels authentic. In fact, this would make an excellent follow-up as a double feature with Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. Similar to that movie, the film hits notes that will work for both kids and adults (Sandler even has one of his hilarious screaming scenes, but the film wisely mutes it by having it take place well in the background, making it all the funnier). But with a movie centered on kids, this sort of thing only works if the cast can carry it, and here’s where we need to talk about the nepo in the room.

As you might’ve gathered from the parentheticals above, Sandler’s actual daughters play his film daughters (his wife Jackie Sandler also appears as Lydia’s mother, while his Uncut Gems wife, Menzel, plays his film wife). Sadie, as the older sister Ronnie, is perfectly fine. I’m not sure she could carry a film, but she supports well enough (and has a great ongoing bit, watching horror movies wherever she’s dragged). Sunny, meanwhile, is a surprisingly solid lead. Funny and grounded, she sells the jokes and the emotional beats. In fact, the only strike I can make is that she pales just a smidge compared to Lorraine, who stands out as the best friend Lydia. Father Sandler is excellent in the role of the loving and beaten-down father, and the only problem with Menzel’s performance is that she isn’t given enough to do. All of which is to say that the cast, particularly Sunny Sandler and Lorraine, make everything else in the movie work.

In the book Whose Torah?, Rabbi Rebecca Alpert notes that “the majority of Jews … aren’t part of any religious denomination at all, and for them Judaism is not a religious practice but a kinship network they belong to, often with pride.” What I ultimately love about this movie is that it stays true to that basic modern Jewish concept. Obviously, Judaism is a central tenet of a film revolving around bar, bat, and b’nai mitzvahs. And while there’s necessarily a rabbi in the film (played endearingly by Sarah Sherman in relatively non-gross-out mode), the film isn’t about the religion of it all. Instead, it uses a piece of modern Judaism to frame and ground a teenage comedy about relationships and clotted pads. As one would expect from Happy Madison, right?