by Elaine Hegwood Bowen
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What can be more important in a young Jewish boy’s life than his Bar Mitzvah? And what can be more important for long-suffering British football fans than for their team to reach the World’s Cup Final in 1966? These two events singly are worth celebrating; but when they coincide on the same day, it’s a recipe for disaster.
Bernie’s eccentric, working-class family lives in London, and members consist of brother Alvie, played by Ben Newton; mom Esther played by Helena Bonham-Carter; dad Manny, played by Eddie Marsan; aunt Lila, played by Catherine Tate and uncle Jimmy, played by Peter Serafinowicz.
Stephen Rea plays the understanding physician Dr. Barrie who ends up treating Bernie for asthma attacks that seem to flare up when he’s stressed out and anxious. And at times, he seems to be Bernie’s only friend.
Manny and Jimmy work as shopkeepers at a market that’s been handed down from their father. But the market’s future is threatened, when a new upscale store opens next door. Manny holds strong that his clientele will be faithful to him, until they literally block his entrance while making a beeline to the new store’s front door.
Manny suffers from obsessive compulsive disorder, repeatedly checking things and eating with a gigantic bib, so as not to spill anything. The furniture is covered in plastic, and in the bedroom that Alvie and Bernie share, Bernie is forbidden to walk on his brother’s side of the carpet.
If that’s not enough to contend with, Bernie gets assigned a blind Rabbi Linov, played by Richard Katz, as the teacher preparing him for this rite of manhood.
Sixty Six is a “true-ish” story loosely based on director Paul Weiland’s life. It’s implied that some experiences are exaggerated to give the movie its comedic edge. And it’s chock full of comedy, although between the laughs you feel as if you want to take poor Bernie into your own home. But it’s like any typical family, with the older sibling commanding much of the attention. And as the movies rolls, you sense that Manny and Jimmy had a similar strained, competitive relationship.
Bernie is constantly reminded that he’s the younger brother; in one hilarious scene, the family is on the way to the beach and suddenly his mom discovers that he’s not in the back seat, alongside his brother.
Instances such as these are the bane of Bernie’s existence, and during his many periods of isolation, he’s left to his own creative devices to dream—said dreams turning into extended sequences as the family prepares for the big day.
Bernie has high hopes through it all that everything will work out for his Bar Mitzvah, which is scheduled for July 30. In one scene with Bernie at a friend’s house (whose mom has more than ample cleavage to always show the young group of friends) it finally hits Bernie that the day that he’s anticipated all his young life will have to be shared with the hopes that an entire country are pinning on a football team.
Bernie figures because he’s Jewish he can make up for his lack of foreskin with his resolve to beat all the odds and make his Bar Mitzvah the best one ever! He boldly embarks on a letter writing campaign to British pop singer Frankie Vaughn to see if he’s available to perform for the young lad and his family and friends.
Kimmel Kosher Katering would be the ones to provide the food for the big day, Bernie figures, until his parents tell him that they cannot afford the tab.
But it really doesn’t matter, because the guest list gets smaller and smaller, as England tastes repeated victories and sees the World Cup on the horizon. Bernie’s mom receives daily calls from families saying they can’t make the party because of one convoluted reason after another.
The situation is made worse by other events beyond Bernie’s control: his father’s business fails, the house catches on fire, and the England team makes major inroads toward playing in the World Cup Final against West Germany.
But although the fire is snuffed out, Bernie’s enthusiasm is not to be extinguished; he figures he can will England to lose, by making an effigy of the team’s favorite player and throwing darts at a team picture. He has decked out the garage with party favors and place settings, everything he feels he needs to celebrate in grand style.
As the day approaches, things can tip either way for Bernie, with either triumph or tragedy—for himself or his country—looming ahead.
Whether Bernie triumphs in the end is up to interpretation, and it’s all in the way one looks at things.
The Rubens’ family does come together to make Bernie’s day a special one, with surprises that Bernie would never imagine, even in his most vivid dream sequences.
Sixty Six is in theaters now, and it’s a great film for the entire community!
Elaine Hegwood Bowen is an editor, a writer and a film critic in Chicago.
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