Every so often a film that seems to have a lot, if not everything, going for it, falls through the cracks of public awareness and disappears into the gaping maw of clearance items at Blockbuster or Hollywood Video (this particular film is released, in fact, on Blockbuster's own boutique label, usually not a very good sign that the film was in fact a blockbuster). Have you ever heard of the film Sixty Six? If you have, you're a more astute barometer of popular culture than I ever have been, evidently. (It should be noted the film is also known as 66, which may have contributed, at least partially, to its lackluster marketing campaign--the film's official site uses the numeral version, while it shows up on IMDb in the word form). I was drawn to this title by its plot summary, a summary which talked about a young British boy being Bar Mitzvah'd on the very day in 1966 (hence the title) that England finally, after years of failure and quite improbably for this particular season, made the World Cup Finals. My own eldest son was just put through his Hebrew paces a few weeks ago, so I thought it might be fun to watch another family, albeit ostensibly fictional (though it's largely based on director Paul Weiland's own personal experience), go through their own ritual of tsuris (that's Yiddish for trials and tribulations, in case you didn't know) in order for their boy to become a man.
Bernie Reubens (Gregg Sulkin) is a precocious, semi-neurotic and newly discovered asthmatic British child about to go through the time honored tradition of turning 13 and throwing a ridiculously over the top party. The fact is that Bernie happens to harbor more than a bit of sibling jealousy toward his older brother, Alvie (Ben Newton), and is determined that his "coming out" party (so to speak) is going to top his brother's in every way. Bernie is about the most prototypical bullied, nerdy kid you can imagine, and Sulkin's heavily bespectacled presence makes the most of the boy's unfortunate plight.
Bernie's parents are no picnic either. His father, Manny (Eddie Marsan) is a curt, distracted and obsessive compulsive corner grocer fighting a losing battle against a supermarket chain that's just moved in next door to his business and is sapping away all of his customers, just when Bernie is demanding a fête of preposterously expensive proportions. And in one of her most remarkable performances in years, Helena Bonham Carter inhabits Bernie's mother, Esther, offering a beautiful glimpse at the one ostensibly "sane" element in this totally dysfunctional group, and bringing a depth of both comic and dramatic nuance to a role that could easily have become a stereotype. Stephen Rea also contributes some nice moments as the asthma doctor Bernie starts seeing, and Richard Katz is both very funny and just a little scary as the blind Rabbi who is guiding (for better or worse, considering his disability) Bernie through this life passage.
While this is a slow moving, if often wryly amusing and touching, film in its first half, once the basic plot machinations have been set into motion, we're off on a beautifully rendered recreation not only of one era, the mid-1960's, but two whole sub-cultural zeitgeists, the soccer obsessed British at large and, more specifically, Jewish boys' penchant for putting all their festival eggs in one Bar Mitzvah basket. These two diodes play out against each other in ways that may not be laugh out loud hilarious (though there are some priceless sight gags in the piece), but which are always very real and very human.
Sixty Six may actually hit a little too close to home for any kid who has felt, a la Tommy Smothers, that "Mom always liked [the other kid] best," or indeed for any kid who has ever suffered the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune at being the last picked for a school football game. Sulkin is marvelous showing the hurt behind Bernie's occasional bravado, and Bonham Carter has a few moments toward the end of this film that are a study in minimalist acting with maximum effect. And if the ending plays a little too much to a sort of Rudy feel good extravaganza, complete with cheering sports fanatics, on a personal level, the story of a disconnected father and son finally finding their common bond may in fact bring a lump to many throats, whether or not you give one whit about English soccer or Bar Mitzvahs.