When you’re 13 everything carries high stakes: friendships, romances, who you’re seen with, which parties you’re invited to. Nothing has an adequate frame of reference, because everything is so new, and you’re not sure if you’re supposed to handle it all like the kid you just were or the adult you want to be. The new Netflix coming-of-age comedy You Are So Not Invited to My Bat Mitzvah manages to convey this liminal state in a way that’s both deeply thoughtful and light as a feather. Coming on the heels of Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, it’s part of a mini-wave of very worthy movies about adolescent girls — their anxieties, their wishes, and, perhaps most important, the bonds that keep them going (and the fissures that can tear them apart).
Then there’s this: Bat Mitzvah features Adam Sandler as both an actor and a producer, and he’s not even getting a mention until the second paragraph of this review. This is partly because he subsumes himself to the rest of the cast, which happens to be largely composed of his family, led by daughter Sunny, who plays soon-to-be-bat-mitzvahed Stacy Friedman as a confused, angst-ridden bundle of desires and social chaos. Also along for the ride are another Sandler daughter, Sadie, as Stacy’s older sister, and Adam’s wife, Jackie, as the mother of Stacy’s bestie Lydia (Samantha Lorraine), with whom Stacy is destined to engage in life-altering combat over – what else? – a boy. Adam, of course, plays the patriarch, Danny, who would really like to see his little girl make it through this passage without a hitch. Idina Menzel plays Danny’s wife, Bree, making this not only a family affair but also an Uncut Gems reunion.
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Cry nepotism all you want, but the entire brood acquits itself quite well, and they seem to be having an infectiously good time together. It helps a great deal that the film is energetically directed (by Sammi Cohen) and written (by Alison Peck, working from Fiona Rosenbloom’s YA novel), infused with a hop in its step that doesn’t preclude something that borders on sincere matters of spirituality. Indeed, Stacy’s big-picture dilemma is how to balance the dramas of adolescence with a desire to do right in the eyes of, well, God. Her dad certainly takes this task seriously. At one point, distraught over very teenage concerns, Stacy asks her pop to give her a break. “Welcome to being Jewish,” he responds. “We don’t get breaks.”
Among Bat Mitzvah’s strengths is its refreshingly modern and inclusive portrayal of Judaism. Members of the Tribe come in all colors and creeds here. Asian. Black. Straight. Gay. Stacy’s rabbi and favorite Hebrew school instructor, Rabbi Rebecca (a scene-stealing Sarah Sherman of SNL), is goofy and eccentric, a loose-limbed cut-up who playfully prods her students and speaks with a sense of musicality. But she’s deadly serious when it comes to her faith, and when she feels her charge is straying from the path, she comes down hard.
The film emphasizes that the Big Event is both an expensive party, with an obsessed-over theme, and a sacred ritual that represents embracing the responsibilities of adulthood. One of those responsibilities, as Stacy learns, is admitting when you’re wrong and atoning for it. Bat Mitzvah doesn’t need to preach this; the ideas and themes are organically baked into Peck’s screenplay.
Given all that, this is still an Adam Sandler movie, the second strong one he’s done for Netflix in as many years (following the crafty basketball drama Hustle. It should be noted that the new film features a basketball-themed bar mitzvah. The man likes his hoops). As Sandler gets older, he seems to be relaxing more. He wears his dad bod with a shrug. His movies generally don’t strain as hard for easy laughs; they let the humor flow from their characters. And they’re more concerned with real life, with what it means to arrive at various stages and keep on going. It’s actually exciting to watch a star whose stock-in-trade has been arrested development flourish in a mature midlife period. Now he seems to be setting up future Sandler generations for success. Bat Mitzvah is about a girl growing up. But her dad seems to be doing some of that as well.
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