This is one, dear readers, where I would ask, if your ears are easily offended, to look past the language. The quality beneath is worth your time.
All too often, when an actor writes and directs his own film, he winds up being, if not a superhero, at least faultless, perhaps even iconic. Zach Braff approaches his character, named Aidan, with an amazing amount of humility. He’s approaching middle age and still hasn’t really “found himself” yet, because he’s a struggling actor who’s still trying out for bit parts at open auditions. But he’s blessed with a loving wife, Sarah (Kate Hudson), who’s been remarkably supportive of his “chasing his dream” while she’s working full-time to support the whole family. They accept financial help from Aidan’s dad, Gabe (Mandy Patinkin), who supports the two kids’ private schooling – as long as it’s teaching Orthodox Judaism. Aidan has a more lighthearted approach to his heritage, making fun of the uptight rabbis, which his young son, Tucker (Pierce Gagnon), finds funny, but his teenage daughter Grace (Joey King) has obviously started taking this stuff seriously. She won’t go swimming with a local neighborhood boy because she’s been taught that it’s immodest for her to appear publicly in a bathing suit (not to mention that she hasn’t learned to swim).
The crisis comes when Gabe announces to Aidan that he can no longer support the kids’ tuition payments because he’s decided to pursue an expensive alternative treatment for his advancing cancer. Aidan didn’t even know his dad was sick. So the family makes the decision that Aidan will try “home schooling” the kids, which leads to some comical ineptness, but eventually, there’s some important life-learning that takes place for all of them. As his dad’s health declines, Aidan also assumes more responsibility for visiting him, even when he’s being critical and curmudgeonly. Aidan also takes it on himself to try to convince his even-more-slacker brother, Noah (Josh Gad), to get over whatever issues he has with their dad and come see him before it’s too late.
Meanwhile, Aidan does his best to placate his long-suffering wife by taking the “swear jar” (money collected by his use of slang in front of the family) and offering it to her for a massage and a chance to go surfing again (she used to love it). He takes his kids camping and spends some real quality time with them. He’s gentle with his father, even when Gabe is being his usual irascible self. Aidan even goes to the (younger) rabbi to actually have a conversation about God. Aidan admits that he’s never been much for keeping all the traditions, but says that he has had an “epiphany” on a hilltop looking at the stars and thinks of God more as infinity. The rabbi, to his credit, encourages Aidan by assuring him that believing in God isn’t just keeping kosher and attending services, but thinking about the eternal (thus giving him permission to be “spiritual” without being “religious,” the current comfort zone of the millennials).
There are strong performances throughout this film, but more than that, the atmosphere somehow manages to be both lighthearted and semi-serious – exploring both family relationships and personal angst. It sounds hackneyed to call it a “celebration of the human spirit,” but there’s just a genuine emotional depth here that will reward the patient viewer. And how long has it been since you’ve seen a current movie with a positive clergy role model?
Ronald P. Salfen is the minister at St. Stephen’s Presbyterian Church in Irving, Texas.