Run Time: 2 hours 1 minute
Stars: Sterling Hurst, Emily Dunlop, Matt Chastain
Writer/Director: Matt Chastain
In Select Theaters and on Most Streaming Services
One of the reasons faith-based movies don’t ordinarily clean up at the box office is because the faithful too seldom see themselves accurately represented in them — and also because to the uninitiated, believers in these movies seem kind of, well, weird.
Those opposing perceptions are attacked head-on in Small Group, a good-natured faith-based comedy that explores the tentative dance Americans choreograph every day as the faithful and faithless try to find common ground without sacrificing their core beliefs — or lack thereof.
Sterling Hurst stars as Scott, a documentary filmmaker who’s been hired by a sleazy film producer (Robert Riechel Jr.) to make a movie that rips the cloak of hypocrisy from a community of Atlanta Christians, revealing them to be the fakers he’s convinced they are. A generally good-natured agnostic with no religious axe to grind, Scott at first resists. But a job is a job, so he dons a pair of Google Glass-like camera/eyeglasses and embeds himself in the fellowship, recording every interaction along the way.
The film merrily skirts the probability that this sort of Candid Camera scam would most likely land someone in jail. But Hurst is such an appealing actor, reminiscent of Daniel Stern in his goofily clueless Home Alone days, that we immediately give his character the benefit of the doubt. Along for the ride is Scott’s wife Mary (Emily Dunlop of TV’s Doom Patrol), trying to be supportive but uneasy about making “friends” with the subjects of her hubby’s guerrilla documentary.
Small Group wrings its laughs — and a few thoughtful moments — from the couple’s fish-in-baptismal-water experiences. An uncomfortable Sunday service seems to them more like a rock concert than a worship event, and they’re distressed when their brand-new red letter Bible proves no match for the digital Scriptures their pew mates wield on their smart phones.
Of course, once they’re enlisted into a small group of church members, the couple soon discover this is not the flock of weirdos they’d expected. And once Scott’s ruse is inevitably discovered, his enraged subjects have to decide whether or not there’s a place in their hearts for unbelieving — and occasionally duplicitous — outsiders.
It’s all as light as an Easter morning balloon launch — until the film takes an unexpectedly dramatic, almost documentarian turn when Scott is invited to accompany the men folk on a mission trip to Guatemala City. There, writer/director Matt Chastain (who also plays one of the small group guys) turns his camera on the real-life squalor of the city’s slums — and the work of Engadi Ministries, a program that tries to save young men from hurling themselves into the dead-end violence of local street gangs. Through Scott’s eyes, we meet several of these youngsters — their bodies covered with tattoos, their eyes ablaze with suspicion and anger — playing themselves with riveting intensity.
It’s quite a transition, admirably pulled off by first-time director Chastain, who momentarily sheds the friendly confines of an off-kilter Sunday School comedy to dip his toes into a kind of street-smart cinematic realism that owes more to Rossellini’s Rome: Open City than to Heaven Is for Real.
Too often, faith-based movies get written off as second-class cinematic citizens. But the genre has given us some of Martin Scorsese’s most thoughtful work (The Last Temptation of Christ; Silence), more than a few Best Picture Oscar Winners (Chariots of Fire and A Man for All Seasons among them), and even a classic comedy (Jim Carrey’s Bruce Almighty). Small Group doesn’t quite breathe that same rarified air, yet it succeeds in using film to explore the kinds of crosstalk that can build bridges among people of all faiths — or no faith at all.
Featured image: Still from Small Group (Limesoda Films)
Shortly after midnight, Sruly slipped below decks to find himself a snack. He hadn’t been able to sleep since the ship left port. He had taken to eating twice as much, compensating for the lack of one primal activity of self-preservation with another. He peeled himself an orange. The exercise gave him no small amount of joy. The turf sprayed onto his eye as his thumb cut the fat clay skin, leaving with him the sting of that acid burn. It felt good, unexpectedly good, like a blast of cold winter air after a long warm night’s sleep — something he was not likely to feel for another few years, if not longer.
He dispensed with the peel quickly, in one unbroken ribbon, and set to work stripping off the veins of white. He knew they were edible, but something disturbed him about eating parts of an orange that weren’t, well, orange. He was an orange connoisseur. He was an orange purist.
This far into their voyage, the carried-on supply of kosher meat in their cabin had been depleted, and their crackers and canned tuna were running low. The communal supply of oranges was all that were left for Sruly and Shoshana to eat. It wasn’t the ideal honeymoon (at least, not the kind they’d grown up imagining) but each of them minded less than they thought they would. Sruly was brought up a good Brooklyn boy, his teeth weaned on the juicy fat of a thick steak, and so you’d think converting to an all-fruit diet would be unnatural, but you’d be wrong. Sruly was an adapter. He was open to whatever fate had on the menu. He was an improviser. He was on a mission from G-d.
The ship docked at Manaos, depositing Sruly, Shoshana, their luggage, a Torah scroll, and enough food to feed both of them for nearly a year, presuming they could find somewhere to keep it from spoiling, or three hundred people at a single meal. That wasn’t a problem for Sruly and Shoshana. They were both counting on the latter option.
Manaos was a coastal town, nestled between the ocean and a tributary that fed deep into the jungle. Traditionally, the local economy hung on vacationing smugglers, or a ship’s crew who would dock for a few days between runs. Of late, however, profusions of college kids had sprung up, waylaid on perpetual spring breaks. There was also a startling number of Israeli backpackers, fresh out of the army and filled with a newfound mortality, a yearning for nonspecific third-world spirituality, and lumps of disposable savings. Manaos, with its jagged cliffs, steep hiking trails, and shamanic culture, was an ideal destination.
Sruly and Shoshana arrived in early spring. In Brooklyn, trees were still defrosting. Here the world was already exploding into a full-blown summer, a paradise of lush blooms and wet air. Everywhere they looked, wildlife stretched its wings and flexed its claws, the act of creation anew.
They took a room at the Empress Hotel. It was small, but serviceable. They had no money, but big dreams, and lots of plans, and not much time to realize them.
They distributed flyers everywhere they could. Cafes, clothing shops, hi-adventure supply stores and the local tourist bureau. Shoshana set foot in the steam baths, a set of natural saunas that emerged from a geologic peculiarity. The locals had converted it into a spa of sorts, and a profitable business. Tonight was a women’s-only night, and she slipped into her swimsuit without a second thought. She started up a conversation with the woman next to her, a dark-skinned twentysomething wearing nothing but a dog tag around her neck.
“So, I see you are here on a pilgrimage?” Shoshana said in Hebrew.
“Just as you are. Isn’t that right, rebbetzin?” The Israeli girl smiled. She’d picked up Shoshana’s secret right away.
“What made you decide to come here?” Shoshana pressed on, determined to be friendly.
“Why does anyone come here?” she said, laughing hard and lustily. “The nightlife. You could say, I have a thing for monsters.”
“Oh, not me!” Shoshana said. “I’m married.”
The girl smiled tolerantly. She slipped deeper into the steaming pool and half-closed her eyes.
“Rebbetzin,” she said, “why did you come here? To save a few of our poor lost souls, to stop all of Israel from becoming Buddhists and pagans?”
Shoshana raised her derrière to one of the pool’s highest stones and sat straight. She had good posture, and, though most of the time you could never tell beneath her modest clothing, a body formidable in its own right. The Israeli girl raised her eyes, in appreciation, or shock, or both.
“I’m just here to make new friends,” Shoshana said. “Next week is Passover. We’re having a dinner on the first night atop Huanchaca Plateau. I’d love to see you there.”
She spoke fast, and with confidence, and in such a commanding voice that the words, though foreign, cemented themselves in the girl’s head. By the time she finished talking, Shoshana was out of the water, her towel wrapped securely around herself, and she’d moved on to the next pool over.
Meanwhile Sruly went on the local bar circuit, starting a few rounds into every evening, giving the kids enough time to get comfortably buzzed before his appearance. He wore his black hat and his big flowing coat. He inserted himself between two khaki-clad tourists, called to the bartender in the local language. He ordered shots for everyone. “What’re we talking about, boys?” he asked.
“Nothing you want to know about, rabbi.” The first guy to speak had a fat American accent, a puffy meat-fed hand with which he squeezed Sruly’s shoulder. It was friendly, but it tingled. “We’re just here to hunt some rare game.”
“Well now, that’s a coincidence.” Sruly slid in, making himself comfortable. “I’m a hunter of a sort, too. I’m here to hunt for lost souls.”
“Oh, you’ve got to be kidding,” they told him. And I’m a lost cause, they told him, and Just keep moving. He did — he never stopped moving — but not till after he’d made his pitch, and usually not until they’d accepted, however half-jokingly, one of his invitations. He was trying to be a local, but by no means was he trying to fit in. All on his own, he was an enigma. He was a spectacle. The frat guys and the backpackers approached him as if hypnotized, moths drawn to flame. They were no match.
They had two weeks before Passover began. In that time, Sruly and Shoshana spoke with — in their most conservative estimation — no fewer than 500 people. Those people were old and young (but mostly young), American and Israeli and European (but mostly a mix of the first two), religiously Jewish and religiously something-else and I-don’t-know and atheist, but mostly religiously unaffiliated — that is, they hadn’t yet made up their minds. Not everyone came, of course. But an astonishing number did. The assembled company, a combination of friends, traveling companions, hookups, bar-buddies-for-the-week, stray lurkers around the lobbies of youth hostels, captured by the hey-there’s-this-thing-tonight vibe sweeping through town, ascended to Huanchaca Plateau. Where the bush and the nut trees thinned into a meadow, the wandering individuals grew into groups, and the groups clustered into crowds.
Sruly and Shoshana made all the food themselves. The natives perked up at their offer of a modest payment, but flatly refused to travel to the Plateau. And so the young couple had no choice but to buy their own plates and cups and cutlery, folding tables and bridge chairs, and lug all of them out of the city and along the paths. Not only was Huanchaca Plateau picturesque, it was also the only spot they could find for free. They’d poured all their finances into this Passover dinner, their inaugural event, hoping to find a few donors in the crowd, enough to finance the next few months of Sabbath dinners and learning programs and challah-baking classes — to say nothing of their growing hotel bill and the distant hope of setting up a house of their own, perhaps one of the Victorian mansions that still sat on the edge of town, built by white settlers and then abandoned for most of a century. With luck, and with G-d’s help, they could do it.
First, though, they had to get through this dinner.
They used all the food they had brought with them, and then some. They cooked all the meat (they’d stored it in the hotel’s walk-in fridge — yes, they’d had to pay rent on that, too) on a barbecue spit at the edge of the plateau. They collected a breathtaking array of fruits and edible fauna from the jungle around, laid them out in eye-catching platters on each table.
And they’d squeezed their own juice from local grapes, an exhausting procedure, since the grapes themselves were almost uncrackable — the animals in the jungle, they were told, often wrestled with the nutlike skin for several hours before the fruit would yield its juices. It took Sruly entire days to harvest enough, and several times he’d nearly broken his hand. But he had to. It was for the seder, that’s what he kept saying to himself. It was what G-d wanted from them.
Their guests poured in. Their guests sat down to the tables. First one wing was filled, then the next. They set for two hundred; they ended up receiving nearly twice that many. People were generous, and good-humored — they doubled up on chairs, the brickish Israeli soldiers pulling the meek Americans onto their laps; they pulled tree stumps to sit on from the surrounding forest. For the first time since they’d arrived, Sruly and Shoshana breathed easy. Their guests were helping each other, and helping them. The meal would surely be a success.
“Let’s get started,” said Sruly, and said it again, once the crowd had quieted. “We’ll begin with kiddish, the prayer over wine. Please pour for your friends, then for yourself. And would someone please uncover the platters?”
Shoshana heard it first. Before Sruly, maybe before anyone else. Distant, but urgent, first sounding like crickets, then like angry birds. The rustling of the platters. The appearance of first fruits. A few people were starting to look around; a few of the ex-infantry, the ones who were trained to notice such things. When they were closer, they sounded like elephants. But by that time, it was too late to do anything.
They dove down. First they aimed for the platters. At first, they looked like giant birds—their beaks like necks, taking up half their body. Then she saw their skin: reptile.
The caws came louder. The shrieks were on the ground, now. There was a screaming from all directions. Their mouths slashed from one side of their body to the other, their wingspan longer than a car, their beaks able to snatch even farther. They grabbed whatever was closest—fruit, meat, human.
Shoshana snatched her husband’s hand — he was standing still, petrified — and ran.
At first the press was on their side. They were newlyweds, putting on a dinner for strangers, giving of themselves, out to make a new life in a lost world. Soon, though, they stumbled upon the religious angle, calling them fundamentalists and missionaries and other barbs of zealotry, anything to keep the focus on the lives lost.
And it wasn’t that many lives, either. Of the 321 people at the meal (the journalists loved that number, 321 — it was like a countdown), nearly 300 were saved. Sruly and Shoshana were personally responsible for several dozen rescues, shooing people into the cave where they’d stored extra supplies, throwing rocks at the monsters, who were trying to snatch up more than they could chew. They’d both needed extensive therapy after that night, but the closest thing to a therapist in Manaos was this old yoga practitioner from Berkeley who’d moved here during the ’80s. The natives called her Mother Tho. She was at least seventy years old and she practiced a local form of transcendental meditation. While talking to her, Sruly learned that her birth name was Barbra Rosenblum. They invited her to dinner the following Friday night.
The hotel kicked them out. They couldn’t handle the influx of paparazzi; the noise was getting to the families, and Sruly and Shoshana couldn’t afford to stay there much longer, anyway. They found housing, first at the local youth hostel, then in a ragtag block of slum apartments. Toward the end of their first year, they moved into one of the old Victorians on the edge of town. A local donor sponsored rehabilitation of the decimated rear walls of the house. They covered the rear walls in iron.
Another thing that happened at the end of that year was their first baby. Around this time, there was a resurgence of press — the one-year anniversary of any tragedy was a wound easily punctured — but this time, they were prepared for it. Besides, they were too religious to have a television or internet. And, for that moment, the memory faded.
Life crept in. The harrowing moments get lost in a sea of other moments, less emotional but more numerous and, in every individual moment, more pressing. At times, the attack felt like something that had happened to someone else, on some other island. The urgency with which Shoshana pulled her husband away from the plateau seemed insignificant compared to the urgency with which her groceries needed to be cooked up before sunset, the urgency with which the twins demanded to be nursed, the urgency of just needing to get out of bed.
But: they stayed. Against every impediment, against her every expectation, they were still here. It was remarkable to her how life kept moving, even when you didn’t keep nudging it along.
Sometimes she received letters from those people, or their families. The ones she saved, or, more often, the ones she didn’t. Why didn’t you choose my son? one mother wrote to her — in Hebrew, which she could have pretended not to understand. But she couldn’t have. She was not that type of person, not anymore. Other people accused her of not trying hard enough; of not doing due research; of being foolhardy in coming to this country in the first place. This particular mother did none of those things. This mother wrote that she, Shoshana, was her proof that there was no G-d. If there was, she wrote, Shoshana would have chosen to save her son above someone else. It was dumb luck, bad luck, that caused him to be attacked, him and not someone else.
Shoshana replied to all of these letters. She poured ages of her time into each letter, spending hours when she should have been trying to meet new tourists (there were some, even the season after the attack, and growing in number each year after it), buying international postage even when she couldn’t properly afford to. She meditated on each reply for hours, sometimes days, before responding. To this mother, she wrote: Nothing in this world is luck, and each moment is preordained. We don’t know why G-d does what G-d does. That day was so confusing to me. I still don’t remember what I saw, and it gets less clear each day. Did I see your son killed? Did I see him in the back, battling off the creatures as others ran, saving ten others by sacrificing himself? In that space of not knowing, the truth could be anything, literally anything. You can say with certitude, he might have died a hero, and know that could be true. It’s a gift that not many other people have. It’s probably not a gift that you want — it’s not what I would want for my own children — but it’s the gift you are given.
Her own children left Manaos, carried on boats to planes, then from planes to yeshiva. In New York they studied, turned into rabbis and rebbetzins themselves, lived in the world that Shoshana and Sruly had left behind. What experiences they were having, Shoshana could only guess. It was a blind spot of her own. She assumed and prayed for the best.
She tried hard to keep them away from the island. All her children had wandering spirits — it was something they’d inherited from both of them — and she would not have them venturing up to the plateau, seeing what was up there. When they were children she had the ability to rein them in, and when she found she could no longer do that, she redirected their misbehaviors: always to the town below them, never to the jungle behind the house. When they reached that age when their peregrinations were guided not by mischief but by the heart, that was the age when she sent them away.
The children married off, one by one, dispersed to their own corners of the world. From time to time they returned, at first to check up on their parents, then to assist them, and then to see if they could take over. Sruly and Shoshana still held meals for Sabbaths and holidays, none quite so lavish as the first year’s, and all of them indoors. Sruly still led the meals, but he had trouble lugging out the tables, setting out all the dozens of plates and cutlery. Their oldest son flew in more and more frequently. He spoke openly of wanting to take over.
Then came the stroke. After it, Sruly was a changed man. He still led the dinners with the same enthusiasm, still spent his voice on Sabbath songs and the little speeches lined with jokes, just short of improper, to surprise and delight the young people who listened. But he began to take long walks, and she feared which direction those walks led.
There is talk of a reunion. One of the villagers tells her, someone with internet. She wouldn’t have believed it. Most of the people they’d saved were older than they were. Most of them probably weren’t alive. But a representative of the group contacted them by mail, asked if they’d be willing to host a Passover dinner. She surprises herself by not even asking Sruly — she knows what he’d say, and she knows she would overrule him — and saying yes.
There weren’t nearly as many people this time. Forget the ones who died that day. Many more were dead now, dead or unable to travel or simply unwilling. But people did come. She couldn’t understand why. After a life spent here, she understood the central paradox of her strange mission: it was her job to waken the sleeping spirit of inspiration, to talk to people who existed by nature with a different set of basic assumptions than she and Sruly did.
They did start showing up in the village. Sitting outside at the cafes, walking the beaches, emptying their money once again into the paltry tourist shops. And when they came, there was something about them that she recognized, something different than the usual seasonal tourists — something about their faces that didn’t change, their taste in clothes, something she couldn’t lay her finger on. She searched in their faces, wondering if it was mutual, but finding nothing.
The meal started like other meals. Her husband led them in the singing. She brought him wine. She brought the karpas, the fresh vegetable for the ritual; it was a fist-sized vegetable they found among the local flora, fist-sized, a color between olives and combat fatigues. Sruly’s hand stumbled, trying to peel it. She took it from him, sliced it open with a nail that was sharp from years of cultivation. The juices dribbled out, and she watched him eat it, slow and with doubtful teeth. He took pleasure in each unguarded slurp, and she took pleasure in watching him.
They went around the table, asking the Four Questions, Sruly pointing out that it wasn’t four questions at all, but one question with four reasons why the night was different, asking what these questions had to do with the festival anyway, how did these words represent freedom from slavery in Egypt. And then something in his voice cracked — something she hadn’t heard him sound like for a long, long time — and he began to sing another song, something low and pained and deep, and she remembered it as the last song he’d sung that day, the special tune he’d used for the prayer over wine.
She excused herself. She left the table suddenly, laying one withered hand on her son’s shoulder — he got up with her, ready to follow her — using her meager strength to push him back down. She made her way out the sealed-up back door, using a trick only she knew, shutting it securely behind her.
The rush of humidity struck her. Sruly needed the house dry, a condition of his lungs, and outside she found herself swimming through coolness and tangles of vines. This jungle, so close, and yet she almost never saw it. Rarely, on late afternoons when the guests were away and her husband was resting, when she needed to remind herself that she still believed, when she wanted to double-dare her Creator.
A few minutes into the jungle, she heard a rustling behind her. She turned around. There was someone, another woman, using a walker. It was a slim path, with unsteady, tapering gravel, and it wasn’t a very good choice. But she wasn’t going to stop anyone. She turned around. It was the Israeli woman, the soldier.
The woman reached into her shirt and pulled out a set of dog tags. “Remember me?” she said.
“Of course I do,” said Shoshana.
“I knew you’d made it out,” said the soldier. “I read about you on the news.”
“I knew you made it, too. I just know things sometimes.”
“Did you know you made me this way?” The soldier reached up, touched her hair, and Shoshana saw that she was wearing a wig.
Against her will, Shoshana felt herself blushing. “Was it because we saved you? My husband?”
“You saved me by being so goddamn Orthodox,” she said, and she said goddamn in English, it sounded so strange coming out of her Israeli mouth. “I hated how religious you were, how you thought you knew more about me than I did about myself. I swore up and down I wouldn’t come to your meal. I was so mad at you people being here, I told myself I would leave the country that night. And then I did, and then I read about you in the paper. I saw your picture,” she said, and shook her head. “After that, everything happened naturally.”
“We should turn back,” said Shoshana.
“Do you come here often?” said the woman.
And Shoshana smiled, the kind of smile that she herself didn’t know what it meant — something special, something wicked.
“I haven’t,” said Shoshana, “not yet.” She moved aside to let the woman ahead of her on the trail, and she held onto the walker to support it. Shoshana held her steady, one hand on the other woman’s hip. They pressed forward together. Ahead of them were distant cries like crickets.
Featured image: The Brook by Paul Cézanne