No film critic would dare print a negative word about a film as well-intentioned as Ilana Trachtman‘s affable, purposely enriching documentary “Praying with Lior“; the reassuring news is that they’d have no reason to. One may be compelled to note the film’s unremarkable visual textures, yet more apropos to mention would be Trachtman’s commendably unintrusive style, both in her film’s shooting and construction. And certainly such tender subject matter warrants this gingerly approach: an assured, straightforward video portrait of a devout Jewish prepubescent with Down syndrome, the film manages to avoid exploitation of its subject matter at every turn.
With an eye more relatably human than ambitiously aestheticized (it’s a work that would fit right in on PBS, not that there’s anything wrong with that), Trachtman follows young Lior Liebling through preparations for his bar mitzvah. For Lior, it’s not merely a rite of passage but also a culmination of a naturally difficult childhood. With restraint and clarity, “Praying with Lior” remains both hopeful and pragmatic about Lior’s future: though Lior is high-functioning in his disability, the question remains how he will function, as he grows older, outside of the close-knit Jewish community that has accepted him with open arms.
The film is punctuated by home-movie footage of Lior’s rabbi mother, who died when the boy was six years old, some of it unbearably poignant. Now, Lior lives with his father Mordechai, stepmother Lynne, and his siblings, who range from unwaveringly supportive — such as his older, college-living sister Reena and brother and avowed best friend, Yoni — to understandably jealous, as is the case with little sister Anna, who often feels forgotten in the wake of the attention Lior warrants. (Reportedly, another sibling, Ben, wasn’t featured in the film.) Trachtman patiently witnesses the Liebling family’s interactions, though perhaps not with the succinct verite focus one might hope for — nevertheless, the film’s sweetest moments seem genuinely captured on the fly, from Yoni’s brotherly tousling of Lior’s hair while playing video games to the usually gregarious Lior’s suddenly shy refusal to interact with a shoe salesman. With the looming bar mitzvah as its only true narrative anchor and its only noticeable aesthetic deviation from the norm being, of all things, an image of Lior shot from underneath a trampoline, the film can’t help but be all about the smaller moments.
Despite the film’s goodhearted domestic drama, and its existence as the product of a community-building outreach campaign meant to affect people’s attitudes towards those with disabilities, “Praying with Lior” manages to ask intriguing questions about Lior’s relationship to God, and how his admitted close connection with the all-powerful affects those around him. Yoni states that the purity of Lior’s davening brings him closer to God, and it’s a point of view that the Lieblings’ religious community as a whole seems to borrow; the notion that God doesn’t make mistakes plays itself out in the response to Lior’s chromosomal aberration, seen by many as beneficial to his faith rather than a handicap to it.
Indeed, Lior’s mighty praying, unhindered by existential doubt, establishes him as something of an uncorrupted vessel. Trachtman catches Lior on film heartbreakingly stating that he believes that not only will the messiah return at his bar mitzvah, but so will the spirit of his deceased mother. It’s an unquestioning, blind faith that puts most desperate attempts at fervor to shame.
[Michael Koresky is a staff writer at Reverse Shot and the managing editor and staff writer of the Criterion Collection.]