“Hey Hey, It’s Esther Blueberger,” a gawky teen who break outs of her life to fit in… screens this weeks at the Sonoma County Jewish Film Festival
“Hey Hey, It’s Esther Blueberger,” which screens this Tuesday and Wednesday at the 15th annual Sonoma County Jewish Film Festival, is a coming of age teen dramedy worth seeing whether you’re Jewish or not. It captures the confusion of growing up from a young girl’s perspective and delivers an important message about feeling weird—it’s perfectly normal! It does require the ability to revisit that awkward and idiotic world of middle school…which seems to have gotten even more tribal since I was there in the 1970’s. The film stars Australian newcomer Danielle Catanzariti in her debut role as 13 year-old Esther Blueberger–a dark-haired, pig-tailed outcast with braces who’s invisible and miserable amongst the pink-ribboned conformists at her private girl’s school in Australia. Esther has the typical anxieties that plague most teens who desperately want to fit in with the cool kids. In addition, she appears to be the only Jewish girl in her school.
Life at home is no better. Her straight-laced and impeccably dressed mother (Essie Davis) busies herself in their huge home and keeps the family humming along but doesn’t seem to have any real awareness of their emotional needs. Esther’s dad (Russell Dykstra) shows up admirably when called upon, delivering a touching bat mitzvah speech for her and her brother, but seems oblivious to the fine details of his family life. Esther has a tight connection with her twin brother Jacob (Christian Byers) and they often hang out together in each other’s rooms but even that seems to be coming apart now that their teen hormones are kicking in.
When Esther ditches her bat mitzvah party and meets free-spirited Sunni (Keisha Castle-Hughes), her world starts to brighten. Sunni is a smart bad girl—effortlessly popular–she smokes, dresses down, and attends public school. Sunni’s mother Mary (Toni Collette) is very hip, eats peanut butter right from the jar, and seems the fascinating antithesis of Esther’s mom.
Soon–and here is where we have to suspend our disbelief–Esther has ditched her private school and is attending Sunni’s public school in another part of town and pretending to be a Swedish exchange student. She finds acceptance in Sunni’s crowd and things are rosy for a while. The problem is that, deep inside, Esther is still Esther. She is popular but she’s living a lie. Tension mounts as she tries to conceal her activities from her family and former classmates at the private school. This is where the film stumbles as it takes a sharp turn into some emotionally heavy content that seems disconnected from its light-hearted comedic start.
Predictably, once Esther’s tried smoking, wearing different clothes, has been kissed, and has even bullied a few girls; she’s still left with herself and the question of who she really is. When she decides to return to her old private school and is suddenly deemed one of the “cool” girls, she begins to see how superficial cliques and the people in them really are.
Despite the fact that scriptwriter/director Cathy Randall has Esther test several clichéd identities—the popular girls, the nerds, the tough girls, and the properly brought up bah mitzvahed Jewish girls–at the end of the film, we still don’t have any real impression about what Esther has learned and how she will interpret her Jewish identity, especially in an environment where she appears to be the only Jewish student. This falls on Cathy Randall. Fortunately, newbie Danielle Catanzariti brings enough to the table in this amazing debut performance that the film comes off as a moving exploration of teen identity–funny, beautiful and sad, all at once.
Esther’s twin brother Jacob is brilliantly cast in Christian Byers whose innocent quirkiness manifests itself in his penchant for mathematically interpreting all sorts of data. When he outright lies about a fight he was in and tells his gullible parents that his schoolmates are all anti-Semitic, you begin to see the little weasel at his best. Castle-Hughes who plays Sunni seems underutilized–her personal presence is just so enormous in this role that it leaves you hungering for more. Now 20, she lit up the screen in her 2004 performance of “Whale Rider” for which she, at age 13, became the youngest best actress nominee in Oscar history. And Toni Collette, while she makes a brief appearance, is the most endearing character in the film. This is a film that will take you way back and make you glad that you survived. Hey Hey Esther, hang tight…it’s almost over!!!
run time: 103 minutes, Australia (2008)
Details: Screens this Tuesday, November 30, 7:15 PM, Wednesday, December 1, at 1:00 PM and 7:15 PM (waitlist only for the 7:15 show) at the 15th annual Sonoma County Jewish Film Festival at the Sixth Street Playhouse, 52 West 6th Street, Santa Rosa. Tickets are $10 matinee and $12 evening and are available online. Pre-purchase tickets online, or phone (707) 528-4222.