We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.
“Everyone has a couch story,” notes Pearl Gluck in the movie she’s made about her own. And if stories are the tools we use to decide who we are, Gluck’s Divan, a kind of docudiary exploring her alienation from her Hasidic heritage and her quest to close the distance by recovering an iconic bit of family furniture, marks her as a restless, inquisitive rebel still haunted by the culture she chafes against. Raised among the insular fundamentalists of Brooklyn’s Borough Park, Gluck fled the constraints of the Hasidic life at age 13, after her parents’ divorce. Following in her increasingly liberated mother’s footsteps, she looks for both that titular couch—slept on by a legendary rabbi a century or so ago—and answers to questions she’d never have been allowed to ask had she remained in her ultraconservative father’s world. But she can never shake the sense that she’s lost something or failed someone, so at NYU, on a Fulbright in Budapest, in travels through the Holocaust-haunted towns of Eastern Europe, she gathers threads of history and cultural connection that she’ll ultimately use to recover—to re-cover?—her sense of identity. In encounters with upholsterers, furniture exporters, distant Hungarian cousins, and other Orthodox Jews who’ve “slipped,” as she puts it, Gluck discovers that the divan her father obsesses over means everything to some of the Jews whose stories intersect with its history, and nothing to others. For her, the totemic thing eventually becomes an object both transformative and transformed. Witty and warmhearted, moving without a whit of untoward sentimentality, Divan is a wide-open wonder tale of a film, an intensely personal chronicle that illuminates the experience of a whole society of struggling outsiders. With it, Gluck earns a place in the culture she still cannot inhabit—if only because, in so lovingly telling its story as part of her own, she helps ensure that her father’s world will endure. —Trey Graham