"Arranged," the film itself and the story behind its conception, makes for a feel-good holiday story. Inspired by the experiences of Yuta Silverman, "Arranged" was written by Stefan Schaefer after he met with the young Orthodox Jewish woman, who had no previous connections to the New York film world, and decided the tale of her experiences finding a husband through traditional matchmaking was one worth telling. Co-directed by Schaefer and partner Diane Crespo, the final film evidences intimate knowledge of its subject, and even if it waters down that knowledge with pat nods to mainstream fare, it still maintains genuine integrity as a story of lives lived very much outside the norm.
Those lives are inseparable from the traditional religious dictates that structure them. Rochel (Zoe Lister-Jones) comes from an Orthodox Jewish family. In her early twenties and with a steady job as a special education teacher at a Brooklyn public school, she is now at the age where her family will hire a shadchen, or matchmaker, to find her a husband. Initially the process doesn't work for Rochel, and though content with her religion and family, she starts questioning both. She finds an ally in fellow teacher Nasira (Francis Benhamou), a traditional Syrian Muslim who is similarly being arranged for marriage by her parents, though her experience with matchmaking is, by comparison, smooth and painless.
"Arranged" takes place within two communities that to many viewers will seem entirely alien, but the film adopts the language and contrivances of the modern romantic comedy to make the dilemmas of those cultures relatable. Rochel's round of disastrous dates with future husband prospects--a montage of various losers and hopeless cases--is taken right out of "Kissing Jessica Stein," and I'm pretty sure I remember seeing Nasira's clever cupid-like intervention to help her friend land an Orthodox dreamboat in some John Cusack or Drew Barrymore torture chamber. Though these bows to formula are likely entirely well intentioned on the part of Schaefer and Crespo, they're disappointing. Rochel and Nasira's stories carry a universal appeal but also a proud distinctiveness, and to fit them into a conventional mold is homogenizing.
Though the film's positive portrayal of arranged marriages is an interesting one given their usual dismissal by an uncomprehending secular society (represented in the film by Rochel and Nasira's insensitive principal), one can't help but wonder whether the fun, if unlikely, solution to Rochel's problem and the pressures surrounding her from her parents conveniently whisks away pertinent issues. After all, what happens when an arranged marriage doesn't work?
Yet for all its unoriginality, "Arranged" surprises with some fine naturalistic performances and a sweet feel for close-knit Brooklyn neighborhood life. It won't get the same attention as the latest mediocrity from the so-called "mumblecore" movement (its characters and situations being unfashionably earnest and of substance), but the film contains excellent hesitation-accented acting by Lister-Jones and Benhamou, who both inhabit their characters with soft-spoken grace. While Rochel and Nasira's eyebrow-raising friendship comes across as a public service announcement ("Someone should be shooting a commercial for world peace," Nasira remarks at one point, perhaps to deflect such criticism), it's nonetheless convincing because "Arranged," however flawed, uses its reserves of authenticity to fashion true characters and the families with whom they love and struggle.