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Poor Bernie Rubens, as if being the most-ignored member of his family wasn’t difficult enough, the bespectacled, Jewish 12 year-old now has to compete for attention on the biggest day of his young life with the biggest thing to happen to British sports since beer.

Sixty Six recounts the (mis-)adventures of a geeky, primary school lad during that tumultuous year. Bernie feels like an outsider in every sense of the word: His OCD-plagued father is too hemmed-in by his condition and busy running the family grocery store to give much time to anyone. His mother’s every spare moment is spent keeping after Bernie’s brash, boisterous older brother – the same brother who torments the meek boy for such unforgivable infractions as walking on an unsanctioned side of their shared bedroom rug. Even Bernie’s school clique of nerds and misfits is mystified by what exactly it means that their friend is Jewish. All this invisibility is going to change for Bernie because as he is lectured by his rabbi, on the day of his bar mitzvah everyone gathered will see the overlooked boy become a man. Well, the temptation to reveal this amazing metamorphosis to all those who’ve discounted Bernie in the past is too great and he intends to seize his special day by the horns. Bernie plans an all-star, no-holds-barred celebration in fancy hotel attended by the most celebrated Semitic personalities in London. Bernie’s handwritten invitations to pop singer Frankie Vaughn and the famously infamous Brothers Kray will surely guarantee their arrival. Bernie’s planning makes him happier than he’s ever been and all seems to be going well until the impossible occurs. The much maligned English football team somehow makes it into the playoffs. Bernie’s joy transforms into a heated obsession as he wills the team to lose so the entire country won’t be swallowed up in footie nationalism and someone will actually attend his imperative celebration. His mother refuses to move the date of the bar mitzvah and no one takes the boy’s anxiety seriously since the English team has never made it past the first round of playoffs. Between his worry about his bar mitzvah, the football World Cup and his family’s financial woes, Bernie is one twelve-year old with a lot of weight on his small shoulders.

Sixty Six is a charming, “true-ish” story of its director Paul Weiland’s own experiences growing up in mid-1960’s North London. During my interview with Weiland, he related that many of the things onscreen; Bernie feeling slightly apart from his friends because of his exotic (re: non-C of E) religion, his father’s OCD, and both parents’ off-handed, neglectful treatment of Bernie had its seeds in reality with a healthy dose of cinematic license. There is a wonderful blend of humour along with the pathos, so while you feel badly for the maligned Bernie, the film doesn’t become maudlin. Overly-sticky at the slightly syrupy end perhaps (- Notting Hill schmaltz-meister Richard Curtis is alleged to have been involved with the writing, after all), but it doesn’t detract much from the heartfelt laughs and thoughtfulness of the previous eighty minutes. Weiland also has a dedicated cast at his disposal, each finding the heart in their respective characters and walking a fine line between honest, nuanced portrayals and pastiche. Eddie Marsan and Helena Bonham Carter as Bernie’s thoughtless parents have the unenviable task of keeping this mother and father whose youngest son is an afterthought, from appearing to be heartless monsters. Marsan also has to juggle that aspect of Manny Rubens with Manny’s OCD-borne quirks and natural eccentricities, some of which prove catastrophic to the family. The sad hangdog eyes in Marsan’s oversized head doing most of the acting for him, he avoids sweeping into broad caricature, but retains all the comedy in the script. Young Gregg Sulkin in his acting debut is all big glasses and wicked overbite as our young hero. Sulkin has a natural charisma as the continually disappointed tweenager and handles both the comedic and the sadder moments with a lovely touch without becoming precocious. One notable scene gives Bernie a heartbreaking speech where he at last addresses all the grievances done to him by friends family and the English football team; the sequence is all the more poignant as the camera pulls back from Bernie’s sad face and shows he’s delivering his litany to no one but the four walls of his bedroom.  Even that melancholy moment is tempered nicely with laughs as his brother turns up once again to shoo Bernie off his precious rug, bar mitzvah or no.

Released in England in 2006, Sixty Six’s portrayal of a Jewish family in late twentieth-century London lovingly examines both their similarities and distinctions with the Gentile world around them while allowing the viewer to find themselves within its four-eyed, adorably geeky hero. Sixty Six’s release in the US contends with the summer’s blockbusters, but that shouldn’t stop anyone from taking a look at this very funny, touching and sweet film.

 

~ Mighty Ganesha

July 30th, 2008

 

 

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Photos

(Courtesy of  First Independent Pictures)