Thomas McDonell and Genevieve Adams in Simchas and Sorrows.
Thomas McDonell and Genevieve Adams in Simchas and Sorrows.

Film about an atheist actress who attempts to convert to Judaism falls short.

What lengths will people go to for those they love?

Simchas and Sorrows, a new independent comedy and drama set for theatrical release on Sept. 16 in Los Angeles and digital release on Sept. 20, grapples with the age-old question through the lens of Judaism. No Michigan dates have been set yet.

In this 116-minute film by New York-based writer, director and producer Genevieve Adams, a struggling atheist actress named Agnes will stop at nothing to convert to Judaism to marry Levi, the man she loves. Adams stars in the film, playing the lead role of Agnes.

As a former Catholic school girl, Agnes falls into a predicament that forces her to make a life-changing decision. She finds out she’s pregnant — an unexpected surprise — and makes an attempt to convert to Judaism for Levi, played by Thomas McDonell.

Her reason: Agnes fears she won’t be accepted by Levi’s conservative Jewish family.
The film follows the ups and downs of the process, and Agnes’ pregnancy, while exploring what it means to be (or in Agnes’ case, become) Jewish. Together, Agnes and Levi face antisemitism, sibling rivalry, family pressure and the idea of interfaith marriage.

Tension only increases when Levi’s parents, Mortimer (Chip Zien) and Maude (Julie Halston), begin to question Agnes’ commitment to Judaism. Yet the skepticism was set into place long before Agnes came along, when Levi’s estranged brother married a woman who refused to convert, ultimately making life much more difficult for Agnes.

Conversion also proves especially challenging for Agnes, who has spent her years questioning religion, breaking the rules and ultimately rebelling against the idea of faith. She meets with the progressive Rabbi Cohen, who challenges Agnes’ atheistic approach, and learns about Judaism through a viewpoint she previously hadn’t looked through.

While Simchas and Sorrows is easy to follow and dives into a topic that has been seldom covered in the Jewish film industry, the messaging and plot felt forced. Dry humor and sarcasm often lend themselves well to coming-of-age films, but in the case of this production, the approach simply didn’t work. On the contrary, it needed depth.

Simchas and Sorrows
Simchas and Sorrows

Simchas and Sorrows lacked substance and, above all, it lacked an emotional connection to keep viewers engaged. The process of Agnes learning about Judaism felt forced and unrealistic, and stereotypes felt embellished for the sake of building a plot.

The dry comedic approach should have produced laughs but failed to do so. It also didn’t help that Adams and McDonnell don’t have much chemistry, making their relationship — and the idea of being head-over-heels for one another — unbelievable.

Still, Simchas and Sorrows is inspired by Adams’ real-life story of marrying her husband, Ben, who is Jewish, and how she learned to balance their two religions.

Yet that personal edge was missing and, if viewers didn’t know better, it wouldn’t shine through in the film on its own. Nonetheless, is focusing on the topic of Jewish conversion important, especially because movies often focus on Christian conversion?

Absolutely.

Could it have been executed better? Definitely. Add some substance, chemistry and a deeper emotional appeal, and Simchas and Sorrows could have been a strong film.

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