Sixty SixDirected by Paul WeilandStarring Gregg Sulkin, Helena Bonham-Carter, Eddie Marsen, Steven ReaRated PG-13*7*
Goes well with: Sixteen Candles, The Wonder Years, The Ice Storm
Paul Weiland's mostly autobiographical Sixty Six is a film that could easily be placed in a particular genre and dismissed. It'd be easy to look at it as a coming-of-age film, or a Jewish film, or even a foreign film (since it's British, and they talk funny). But to do so would be to disregard a treat of a movie that features some sharp performances. Even though it debuted at this year's San Diego Jewish Film Festival, Sixty Six has much more in common with The Wonder Years than, say, Fiddler on the Roof.
It's 1966, and poor Bernie Reubens (Gregg Sulkin) is the school geek. Even the kid with polio gets picked for sports before he does. But his bar mitzvah is on the horizon, and that will turn everything around. After all, his parents, Esther (Helena Bonham Carter) and Manny (Eddie Marsan) spared no expense on his older brother's rite of passage, so Bernie sees this as the once-in-a-lifetime event to redefine himself to his peers. As he says in his voiceover, he's aiming for “the Jesus Christ of bar mitzvahs.” So he spends hours in his fortress of solitude, creating menus and seating arrangements, convinced that his party will be what turns this invisible little boy into a god among men.
But there are problems. First, a one-stop supermarket has opened down the street from the shop Manny and his brother have owned and run for years. Money's tight, so his parents are scaling back Bernie's elaborate vision. Much worse, his mother's scheduled the big day on the same day as the 1966 World Cup Finals. This shouldn't be a big deal, because England's team has no shot whatsoever at winning the cup. Or does it? Actually, history shows that, in fact, England somehow made an entirely unexpected phenomenal run back in '66, putting the club up against Germany in the final match, precisely at the same time as Bernie's bar mitzvah—meaning that virtually no one turns up.
This is precisely what happened to Weiland, who had a disastrous bar mitzvah but is able to poke fun at himself when describing the events. Still, what Bernie's going through—and what Weiland experienced—is terribly tragic. Many of the jokes in Sixty Six are easy to see coming, but you usually don't mind when they arrive.
The film features a sweet performance from Bonham Carter and a terrific turn from Marsan. His Manny is oddly neurotic, complete with a case of obsessive compulsive disorder so serious that today he might be diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome. Marsan, a character actor you've probably seen before but likely won't recognize, imbues him with real humor and pathos. It's clear, just from his behavior, why Bernie is the way he is, and yet, he's also terribly easy to sympathize with.
Sixty Six isn't a great film. But it's good, and very funny, even if it gets overly sentimental from time to time. That's not always a bad thing—we can all do with a little sentimentality now and again, especially when there's no shortage of spiritual sucker punches to both Bernie and his dad. And what Weiland does with Steven Rea is terrific. As a doctor who takes note of Bernie's plight and becomes a stable father figure, the crafty veteran is eventually shown to be just a man, knocked off his little pedestal by the simple problems of living his life.
And that's the thing: Though Bernie isn't wrong to be mad at his parents, since they've neglected him in his hour of need, it makes Bernie realize that perhaps his parents' problems aren't unique. The realization leads to personal growth in a way that his perfect bar mitzvah never could have.