Sometimes a film can come along and be particularly relevant to a viewer's experience. Such was the case with Praying with Lior, a touching film about a Down Syndrome kid preparing for his Bar Mitzvah. It just so happens that one of my sons, thankfully not afflicted with anything other than pre-teen moodiness, is getting ready for his "today I am a man" moment this summer. But perhaps more importantly, on my wife's side of the family we watched something somewhat similar to Lior's experience with a "heavily involved" (to use medical parlance) autistic nephew of ours who prepared for his Bar Mitzvah despite being unable to speak (he communicates through a handheld keyboard contraption). That odd alignment of personal history with the film's story made Praying with Lior especially meaningful for me, but my hunch is a wide swath of people will find this film uniquely moving, even if it isn't exactly what its advertising campaign makes it out to be.
Praying with Lior follows the journey of 12 year old Lior Liebling, a Philadelphia youth handicapped by Down Syndrome, but fairly highly functioning nonetheless. While his speech is pretty badly impaired, he has basic cognitive abilities, and certainly had at least the intelligence to master reading Hebrew, which any Jew will tell you is not always an easy task. Lior is something of a tabula rasa, however, both internally and externally. Within his personal experience, he remains a simple, unaffected soul easily distracted and just as easily overfilled with enthusiasm and love, something quite typical of Down kids. Externally, however, because of his love of davening (praying), other kids and some adults see Lior as some kind of spiritual savant, deeply in tune with the beyond. What Praying with Lior makes clear, perhaps despite itself (its press leans toward the "simple mystic wise child" spectrum), is that Lior is nothing of the kind. As one bystander aptly points out, the kid was raised in an environment where every Hebrew prayer he uttered was greeted with a beaming response, so it's little wonder that that makes up such an important part of his personality.
What adds to the poignance of Praying with Lior is the family history beyond Lior's personal affliction. The film opens with a touching home movie of a very young Lior being sung to by his Rabbi mother. The film then quickly reveals that Devorah Bartnoff died from cancer when Lior and his three siblings were still quite young. Lior's rabbi father, Mordechai Liebling, went on to remarry, and "Mama Lynne" is on hand in the film helping to raise the kids and especially to prepare Lior for his Bar Mitzvah duties.
If you come to Lior expecting less of a portrait of a "miracle child" and more of something perhaps even more miraculous, a loving, if slightly dysfunctional, blended family overcoming a number of horrible circumstances, you will be rewarded with an unusually deep and affecting emotional experience. Lior is surrounded by a lot of love and support, if sometimes gentle chiding, especially from his father. Lior's older brother Yoni is a remarkable young man who obviously deeply loves his little brother and is there for him, heart and soul. While Lior's younger sister Anna (rightly I think) complains about her never getting any attention due to Lior's affliction (something she amends in a follow up interview included as an extra), it's obvious nonetheless that this is a remarkably cohesive family unit, despite its travails. I defy any viewer not to have a lump in their throat when Mordechai and Lior visit Devorah's gravesite as Lior's Bar Mitzvah approaches.
This film is a wonderful testament to a family dealing with extraordinary circumstances. There's nothing deep about Lior's spiritual exploits, but, you know, there really doesn't have to be. The fact that the kid has overcome so much and achieved even a modicum of normalcy is more than enough to make his story touching and relevant to anyone who has struggled to overcome any personal problem. The fact that this is all wrapped up in a celebratory Jewish ritual is icing on the cake for those of us connected to that tradition, but it's really a sidebar to the main story, which is the personal triumph of both a remarkable child, Lior Liebling, and his equally remarkable family.