Get to know D.C. with our daily newsletter

We dive deep on the day’s biggest story and share links to everything you need to know.

Those who consider Groucho Marx a great Jewish philosopher may be surprised to meet the people in Trembling Before G-d, who offer their own version of Groucho’s famous dictum: These men and women desperately want to join a club that would never accept them as members.

Shot over five years in Israel, Britain, and the United States, Sandi Simcha DuBowski’s fascinating documentary is about gays and lesbians who were raised—and in some cases remain—Orthodox Jews. Some are outspoken, independent, and long separated from the families and religious communities that shaped them, but are still feeling pangs of separation and loss; others speak (literally) from the shadows, unwilling to reveal themselves and risk banishment. One incognito lesbian says that she feels “physical revulsion” at the prospect of not being religious, although enduring a loveless marriage is the only way she can remain a member of her faith.

Many of DuBowski’s subjects would argue that same-sex love is a form of sin, but “when one falls, one falls into God’s lap” is one of the documentary’s maxims. A seemingly kind-hearted rabbi counsels abstinence to David, who, after 20 years of “aversive therapy”—biting his tongue every time he saw an attractive guy, for example—has abandoned his attempts to be straight. Though a psychiatrist speaks admiringly of a yeshiva teacher who keeps falling in love with the boys he teaches but has managed to stay married and produce 12 children, the best alternative the film’s religious authorities can offer is masturbation, deemed “less of a sin” than homosexual acts by one rabbi.

According to Leviticus, gay male sex is an “abomination,” properly punished by death. (Later Jewish law directs only flogging for lesbianism.) The film’s Orthodox rabbis and elders accept this judgment, more or less, but are not exactly authorities on homosexuality and its related issues. One is unaware of oral sex, and another, though finally willing to speak with his estranged gay son by phone, declines to meet him in person for fear of contracting AIDS.

On the other side of the divide, most of the gay people DuBowski documents either try to make a place for themselves in an Orthodox Jewish closet or profoundly miss full participation in their former community. Mark, an HIV-positive Brit who was sent to Israel as a teenager because supposedly “there were no gay people there,” fears that his life is a mistake since he “lost the Torah.” Puckish Israel, who laughingly leads a “Big Knish” tour of the Hasidic Brooklyn neighborhood he fled almost 50 years ago, still wants to be reunited with his homophobic elderly father.

Of course, DuBowski (who was raised Conservative) could have assembled an angrier and more alienated cast of characters. (Even soundtrack composer John Zorn, known for squeaks and squawks, behaves himself, providing a sedate klezmer-rooted score.) Perhaps seeking to be diplomatic, the film leaves some important questions unasked. It introduces Steve Greenberg, the first openly gay Orthodox rabbi, but doesn’t establish how he reconciles both identities. Made more in sadness than in anger, Trembling Before G-d is a sober lament for two groups of people who have more in common than they realize, yet it spends surprisingly little time with a man who has somehow bridged the gap.

Sometimes child actors can be annoying even when they’re good, playing to adult notions of cuteness so adroitly that it’s a bit creepy. That’s also the problem with Sean Penn’s performance in I Am Sam, in which he plays an earnest Starbucks employee with the mental development of a 7-year-old. Fortunately, his Rain Man-ly mugging is balanced by a mature turn from actual child actor Dakota Fanning, as Sam’s beloved daughter, Lucy.

Lucy is introduced as a newborn, dumped on clueless but endlessly well-meaning Sam by his lover of convenience, a formerly homeless woman who’d rather return to the streets than assume parental responsibilities. (Hers is an even faster motherly getaway than Cate Blanchett’s in The Shipping News.) Bewildered by the squalling infant, Sam calls on his neighbor Annie (Dianne Wiest), whose agoraphobia prevents her from ever leaving her apartment.

Improbably, Sam and Annie—and a few of Sam’s mentally challenged pals—take successful care of Lucy until she’s 7, although there’s the occasional meltdown when Lucy’s inquiring spirit disrupts the routine her father needs. Aside from Starbucks, Sam lives for IHOP, the Beatles, and the book that features his namesake, Green Eggs and Ham, so an unexpected trip to Bob’s Big Boy can really freak him out. When Lucy (middle name: Diamond) outgrows Dr. Seuss, her schoolteacher assumes she’s outgrown Sam, too. Faster than Aimee Mann and Michael Penn can sing a chorus of “Two of Us,” Sam and Lucy’s theme song, a social worker has snatched Lucy and informed Sam that he can visit once a week.

At this point, every maternal Hollywood actress in the vicinity gets involved: Mary Steenburgen appears briefly as an expert witness, Laura Dern surfaces as Lucy’s foster mother, and a crisply predictable Michelle Pfeiffer arrives as sharp-edged but soft-centered lawyer Rita (as in lovely) Harrison (as in George, this cinematic season’s fave moptop). If Sam must rescue Lucy—and vice versa—he’s also the man to save Rita, a Tab-drinking, Type A attorney who’s hated around the office—and apparently isn’t too popular with her husband or her son, either.

At first, Rita grudgingly assists Sam, who unknowingly embarrasses her into taking him as a pro bono client. Ultimately, though, she hails Sam for transforming her careerist life—the most pat development in a movie that’s not exactly afraid of formula. Director and co-writer Jessie Nelson, who previously made Corrina, Corrina and co-scripted The Story of Us, specializes in broken families, plucky kids, and unrevealing last-reel revelations. Although the anguish of the separated Sam and Lucy is palpable, the movie’s love-trumps-legalism moral is glib.

In fact, the movie is least credible when reality intrudes. The courtroom sequences, which profess to depict actual social issues, are less believable than the outright fairy tale of Sam and Lucy’s life, blessed by those benign demigods John, Paul, George, and Ringo (and impersonated on the soundtrack by such respectful cover-version performers as Rufus Wainwright, Sarah McLachan, and the Wallflowers, as well as Mann and Penn); it’s almost as if father and daughter lived in Pepperland. Still, Fanning’s performance gives I Am Sam an emotional kick it doesn’t entirely deserve; she embodies the real emotion in a tale that could have been merely mawkish. CP