There’s a disappointing tendency for movies about being Jewish to be surface-level and not really dig into actual substantive practices or traditions. While that may reflect how many people of Jewish heritage live their lives, it still shouldn’t be quite so rare to find layered depictions of what being Jewish means. A musical about a boy about to have his Bar Mitzvah but struggling to plan a satisfying party after a last-minute relocation from New York City to Indiana could easily fall into that usual trap. 13: The Musical, however, manages to mix in just enough (mostly accurate) Jewish content to supplement an endearing and inviting story of what it means to be thirteen and in a new place.
13: The Musical is based on the stage musical of the same name which notably featured an all-teenage cast and band. For the film version, it’s still true that the actors playing thirteen-year-olds are about that age, but other generational representatives appear as well, namely Debra Messing and Rhea Perlman as the mother and grandmother, respectively, of the Bar Mitzvah boy, Evan (Eli Golden). Josh Peck also gets a humorous part as Evan’s New York rabbi, who, in the film’s opening scene, mocks answering his phone to tell him that God is calling and wants his language back after Evan stumbles practicing his Haftarah portion. Whether a rabbi quite so casually callous actually exists is up for debate, but Peck is certainly having fun.
The fun continues, following up that opening scene up with a spectacular musical number that touches all the bases of what it means to be thirteen. One of the three original songs in the film, “I’ve Been Waiting,” feels like the PG-rated version of “Summer Nights” from Grease, detailing how Brett (JD McCrary) and Kendra (Lindsay Blackwell) hope to share their first kiss together after spending the summer apart.
While there are adults in the cast enduring their own crises, like Messing’s Jessica going through a divorce and having to move in with her mother, the storyline is presented very much from the point of view of a teenager. Told by his grandmother that the temple they do have in Walkerton, Indiana is a church and that, along with school and friends, he’ll miss the bagels from New York, Evan despairs at his lonely rural fate. But in reality, Walkerton is only half an hour from the major city of South Bend, which boasts multiple synagogues, and Evan’s rabbi is able to fly in for the Bar Mitzvah after continuing lessons over Zoom. It’s all a matter of perspective – for a kid from New York City, anywhere in Indiana might as well be the most remote place on Earth. Unsurprisingly, Evan’s attitude changes once he actually meets people in the new place he doesn’t want to be.
This young cast includes some extraordinary talent, led by Golden as the energetic and well-meaning Evan. Gabriella Uhl and Jonathan Lengel have solid comedic timing as Evan’s unpopular friends Patrice and Archie, and Frankie McNellis impresses with her vocals and dancing as Kendra’s mean girl best friend Lucy, who also harbors a crush on Brett. Blackwell and McCrary are also skilled dancers, and each musical number is big, bold, and absolutely delivers. “Opportunity” is another standout song that channels Lucy’s self-perception and whose choreography involves the cheerleading squad.
While 13: The Musical is ostensibly about Evan and his Bar Mitzvah, it’s more about the things that happen around that milestone event. Friendships are tested when Evan invites the cool kids to his party and considers tailoring it to them rather than those he already knows. Romances blossom and in some cases fail to materialize. The lack of much dramatic payoff or consequential plot development is made up for by the delightful energy of the movie, one that makes great use of all its players and presents a heartwarming tribute to the grandeur of teenage years.
13: The Musical will stream exclusively on Netflix beginning August 12.
Photo: Alan Markfield/Netflix