Netflix’s 13: The Musical features a young cast that is utterly stacked with talent. And, at its heart, the movie has some really touching and meaningful takeaways. That needs to be the first statement here, and it would be a great disservice to the young cast in question to bury that.
But…Well…We should probably get the kind of uncomfortable part out of the way before continuing.
Full disclosure: When I first heard about 13: The Musical on Netflix, my first instinct was to hate it on principle. Peter Hermann, who plays bar mitzvah boy Evan Goldman’s father, Joel, infamously took his then-future wife to church on their first date. (And no, I’m not “ripping on” anyone for that. Just…some of us are super protective of how our communities are represented, especially when we finally get to see those communities as something other than lambs to the slaughter or one-note caricatures. That’s all.) There were even promotional photos that made it at least appear as if Joel Goldman — now there’s a Jewish name — was sitting on the bimah, at his son’s bar mitzvah…with nothing covering his head.
…the outrage. No, really. I’m pretty sure one of my texts to a good friend read something like, “if you’re going to cosplay as Jewish instead of letting us tell our own stories, at least commit to the look.”
But as it turns out, Joel kind of casually grabs his kippah, seemingly out of nowhere, and pops it on his head on the way in the door. There’s a certain amount of relief in seeing this gesture, especially since it’s kind of how some of us less traditional folks “do Jewish,” if you will. It’s the type of thing I’ve seen countless times as people have met for a chat, either in the lobby or out in the parking lot, before, almost as an afterthought, kind of…transferring into ritual mode. It’s us, represented.
(Of course, many of my friends, especially from Orthodox and Conservative communities, would never. They’d be more likely to just always wear a yarmulke, especially on shul grounds — even if not in the sanctuary itself.)
So, while I still believe there’s a discussion to be had about letting us tell our own stories, and while I still think any number of Jewish actors could’ve had just as easy and natural a father/son chemistry with star Eli Golden as did Hermann…I think, this once, I’m happy to say I was so, so wrong about what I was getting myself into here.
Before diving into the real meat of the review, actually, I’m actually going to eat a little bit of crow here and say, of the adult actors, Hermann was easily the standout. For someone who had the least amount of screentime with Golden, there was not a moment, of the precious few they shared, where I didn’t believe this was a father/son duo. And, considering I know what it is to have a dad who feels the need to make amends, I’ll just say…yes. That phone call resonated.
Honestly, the only real problem I have with the character itself is that he’s a lawyer. For as much as I gush about the Jews in this film not being stereotypes below, I’m still kind of like, “ugh. We’re not all doctors, lawyers, dentists, and bankers. Some of us are writers, or teachers, or shul staffers, or any number of other things.” (Yours truly is some bizarre combination of the above.)
Soapbox over. For now.
So, now we get to the gushing part.
But 13: The Musical isn’t about the adults in the room. In some sense, it’s not even necessarily about a bar mitzvah. And, for what it’s worth, being both about the bar mitzvah and not about it is…I’ve got conflicting feelings, actually.
I’m kind of equal parts “wow, that’s Jewish life in America in a nutshell, just living your life and happening to have this big ritual thing involved” and…”but why?!” Then again, given that I’m personally very involved in the behind-the-scenes of the b’nei mitzvah process, I can confirm it’s like the majority of that is particularly interesting. Facility request forms, and religious school fees, and b’nei mitzvah fees, and classes, and tutoring, and…
Yeah. That wouldn’t have made for anything remotely resembling entertainment. Just saying.
Aaaaand we’re back from the detour.
As I said at the beginning of this review, the movie’s young cast, led by Eli Golden, is just stacked with talent. Golden, in particular, brings something to this role that just makes it work. Everything hinges on believing in and rooting for his character, and thanks to Golden, you can’t help but do exactly that. He’s just an absolute joy to watch, displaying an unfair amount of charisma and talent. Golden does the big, bold numbers and the more introspective pieces — like “It Would Be Funny” — equally well.
Does the character make some frustrating and careless decisions? Yes, of course. But he’s just a kid, trying to figure things out, in the middle of a major change in his family dynamics and having been moved across the country. Growing up is difficult enough to navigate. Adding in all the rest…It makes sense that Evan might make more mistakes than the average kid. And the average kid — no, the average person of any age — is far from perfect.
In the end, that’s the point. In its very big and mushy heart, 13: The Musical is the story of a kid whose life is turned upside down at the worst possible time. Evan’s someone who just wants to fit in, and he makes a mess of everything by trying too hard. It should resonate with anyone who’s navigated the social scene, especially at a new school.
And while we do need to be careful about promoting the idea that a bar mitzvah is nothing more than an over-the-top party to end all parties, this is from the kid’s perspective. Some are really only in it for the party. Others are truly interested in the Judaism of it all but need that party to look forward to as a well-earned reward for all that difficult, and sometimes scary (leading an entire Saturday morning service?! Terrifying), work.
And, of course, yet more young Jewish students working toward b’nei mitzvah have who knows what reasons. We’re all different, after all.
Subtle representation that (mostly) avoids stereotypes
What unites our community, as well as those from outside it, is just having to live in this world. To grow up, especially. So, 13: The Musical‘s themes of making friends, fitting in, and — yes — wanting a great, big party to celebrate years’ worth of hard work (or even just for a standard birthday!) are universal.
It’s actually terrible to have to say this (again with why I wish we could tell our own stories more often), but: It’s so refreshing to see just how normal Evan is. Sure, he’s preparing for his bar mitzvah. And sure, on a Netflix film, I get to hear a young boy stumble through his Haftarah with his rabbi…But instead of being “othered,” either through overly-stereotypical characterization or through the plot itself, Evan is just…who he is.
At the risk of overusing the word, yes, he’s normal. We’re normal.
Regardless of what all the wrong people might lead you to believe, Jews are exactly that. We have our traditions, and boy, do we have our history of suffering. But we are not apart from society; we are a part of it. And Evan Goldman, in 13: The Musical is a part of. As he should be. Actually, he’s right at the center of it all. Deservedly so, with an actor like Golden portraying him. If all of that seems to contradict my point about wanting us to be able to tell our own stories above…Well. Welcome to Judaism.
Speaking of avoiding tired stereotypes: Josh Peck is super young by film’s “standards” for rabbis! Thank you for that. Believe it or not, they’re not all old, bearded dudes with thick accents! Even if they become old, bearded dudes, rabbis don’t just spring off the assembly line like that! They’re humans, who start out young and grow old — just like everyone else! Wild, right?
In fact, I’d go so far as to say Peck’s Rabbi Shapiro is the perfect representative of all the rabbis I’ve known personally in at least one key way: Of course he’s out here, making terrible, corny jokes.
(Like, do they teach that skill at HUC? What about RRC? Then again, there’s a particular rabbi I know who always had a way with humor before they ever went to rabbinic school, so…)
The big, Jewish highlight
But back to the point. If we want to talk about Evan’s bar mitzvah from a religious standpoint, yes, the nuggets are there. Early in the film, he mentions a mitzvah project. As I mentioned above, there’s Evan’s stumbling progress on learning his Haftarah, which gets neglected as he deals with all his social scheming. (Can confirm kids do this.) But, somehow, it all comes together in the end. (Also can confirm this is true to life…though, not every kid has that voice.) When Rabbi Shapiro calls him to do this reading, he even uses Evan’s Hebrew name.
Most notably, we can discuss how each kid gets to give a d’var — a commentary — on their Torah portion as part of the service. Well. Evan Goldman’s d’var, fittingly for a musical, is a musical number. Not just any musical number, either. It’s one of the best in the entire movie. And its message — that we’re all just trying our best, day by day, but still have “a little more homework to do” — may or may not have turned this skeptic into an emotional mess.
We could all, after all, use “a little less pressure and a little more time.” It speaks perfectly to the Jewish idea that we’re all constantly working toward a better world, bit by bit. And no, the answers aren’t just all there, in the back of the book, for a quick study. Not in Judaism, and certainly not in life. We’re all works in progress, after all.
But how is 13: The Musical as an actual musical?
If I’m being honest here (which I always try to do, to a fault), even with my initial misgivings, I was always going to watch 13: The Musical, regardless. I mean, I love musicals and am totally obsessed with dance. So, let’s be real.
So, how did the musical element of this movie work? Fabulously.
I easily just found myself having a good time. And honestly, to tie this back to Evan’s whole bar mitzvah journey, considering the number of films about Jews that are either gross, overblown stereotypes (hi, Hallmark) or a constant reminder of our suffering through Shoah-centric stories, that might just be the best representation I could’ve ever asked for — joy. Joy and excellence.
Element by element, the dancer in me has to point out that Jamal Sims’ choreography is, for lack of a better word, badass. If you loved Mandy Moore’s big numbers in Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist, you’re bound to have the same love for every single dance piece here.
The dance numbers make genius use of the school setting, and there are many opportunities, even within the large group pieces, to highlight individual dancers. And I have to say, any time Nolen Dubuc was in a musical number, he stole the spotlight. There’s one number with the football team (“Bad, Bad News”), where Dubuc’s character, Malcolm, steps off a bench in the locker room…And it’s such a small detail — which, dancers will know are almost always the most important bits — but the way this young star almost floats on air for just a split second as he steps off that bench, is a thing of beauty.
Actually, choreographically and considering there are so many boys killing it, “Bad, Bad News” may be one of the best numbers in the whole film. The message might not be my favorite on this one, but the dance is top notch.
And the cast members’ voices, across the board! The harmonies Golden hits, with costars Gabriella Uhl and JD McCrary in particular, have me convinced the Broadway musical landscape is in for some very, very good things over the next several decades.
The bottom line
Are there corny/cringeworthy moments here and there? Sure. But some of them are actually instructive, so they work, in the end. See also: Lucy’s weird AF description of what a bar mitzvah is and literally every other kid’s reaction to it.
“Oh, it’s this Jewish thing where they make you talk backwards and everyone gets circumcised.”
“No! It’s a party. With dancing and a DJ. It’ll be awesome.”
(The important part here is the very negative reaction to Lucy’s horrible take. And Evan sets her straight…even if he focuses on the party and not the ritual meaning. Sadly, people really believe these stupid things about Jews, so it’s good to see them categorically denied.)
So, is 13: The Musical perfect? No. But does the Netflix movie deliver on a touching, entertaining couple of hours that managed to, despite its imperfections, turn this skeptic into a believer? That’s a firm yes.
Additional thoughts on 13: The Musical that don’t seem to fit anywhere in this whole megillah…
- “I feel like my whole life is a dumpster fire.” (Get used to it, kiddo. That never goes away.)
- “I know you’ll miss your friends. And school…and bagels.” I mean, anyone leaving New York City to go to middle America would miss the bagels, but we also gotta worry about “Jews and bagels. Wink, wink…” a bit. As long as we’re in on the joke instead of the butt of it…
- “Is there a temple?” “There is! It’s called a church.” (…in the South..folks say things like this, even when there’s an actual temple.)
- Not this kid making me feel ancient with his “what’s a mixtape” line!
- No, but I would die for my little activist Patrice.
- And Archie! You mean to tell me the only Jews in town are Evan and his family, yet Archie nails the Jewish guilt the first time we meet him? Seems fake.
- “For us Jews, it’s the one day that’s supposed to be happy. And perfect!” Ok but wait until you’re old enough to get trashed on Purim, kiddo.
- Why does “The Lamest Place in the World” make me think of my Southern Maryland hometown, though?
- “I always do what she tells me. I want to decide something for myself — be my own person. For once.” Kendra with the growing up mood.
- As a dancer, I appreciate the cheerleaders having actual good choreography, especially since it includes the band! (Band nerd, me? yes.)
- “…decent omelette.” “They’re pancakes.” Yikes.
- No but the little stabby-choppy movement when Evan jumps off the bench in this song about going to see a horror flick
- “Respect. Respect the yarmulke.” So cringe, yet so accurate. Rabbis are awkward when they try to be funny. Trust me!
- We really can’t possibly get excited enough about how great the disability representation in 13: The Musical is. Archie’s in the musical numbers, just like anyone else. And nobody treats him as overly fragile or whatever — they don’t make a Big Deal about him using a wheelchair. At all. And when Patrice tries to say she was helping him with the movie thing, he pushes back on everyone thinking he needs help. And the actor isn’t just cosplaying. Jonathan Lengel, who plays Archie, “has a rare form of congenital muscular dystrophy and uses a wheelchair like the character he portrays,” according to press notes we received. The next Lengel could be sitting at home, not even realizing they have this opportunity — this film could show them they do.
- “You two clearly need more help than I do.” Go off, king!
- “This better work. Or you’ll be lighting that birthday menorah alone.” “That’s Chanukah.” (Sometimes, when your birthday is in December, it winds up being both! But also, Lucy really gets all the best/worst lines to show how ignorant the general population is when it comes to anything Jewish.)
- No but that look on Evan’s face when he realizes he’s gotten his Hebrew right.
- “Tell Her” makes me emotional AF?
- “This is more important than a dope party.” THAT PART.
- The “Jewish olive branch” is both sweet and…so weird? But I want a real bagel, so whoever brings me one is automatically a fave.
- The kid with the zillion turns into a backflip at the end, though!
13: The Musical is now streaming on Netflix.