COMING OF AGE HONESTLY
BY JONATHAN W. HICKMAN
WWW.EINSIDERS.COM - APRIL 3, 2005
Early in "The Tollbooth" Sarabeth is told by an art gallery owner: "Remember in the art world cynicism never goes out of style; you just have to keep up with what it's hip to be cynical about."
Sarabeth Cohen wants to be a professional artist. Her education only prepared her for the technical side of things. Unbeknownst to her, Sarabeth will need to rely on the lessons of her upbringing to successfully navigate the dangers of big city life.
"The Tollbooth" is a wonderfully honest coming of age film that knows its material so well that it hardly missteps. I don't know the back-story of writer/director Debra Kirschner but it wouldn't surprise me if this film were semi-autobiographical. The story is so very genuine and sincere it couldn't be drawn solely from one's imagination.
The Cohens are a very close family. It's the kind of family that knows everything about one another and doesn't hold back when expressing opinions. Sarabeth's father, Isaac (Ronald Guttman), loves his three beautiful daughters so much that even following a heated argument in which two of them are told to leave, he kindly tells them to drive carefully. Her mother, Ruthie (Tovah Feldshuh), wants her daughters to lead traditional lives and this involves finding a man. Ruthie proudly talks about her daughter who is in medical school and when that daughter reveals that she is gay, merely tells her that she has been working too hard and can make a "B" if wants. Ruthie doesn't realize that the teachings she imparted on her children are the main reasons why two of them will lead non-traditional independent lives.
Kirschner's "Tollbooth" is a family story that feels a lot like a modern "Brighton Beach Memoirs." There is humor and sadness and even a slight profundity. At a bridal shower the out-of-place Sarabeth gives the bride a shower gift, a painting of the bride's imaginary dream house. The gift is received with such a surprising amount of sincere appreciation that it is remarkably moving--remarkable because the emotion comes in a scene that wasn't working until that point. Chalk it up to writer/director Kirschner who stays with the awkward pacing of the scene trusting that the pathos will pay off. And it does.
I remember another film I reviewed sometime back called "A Fish Without A Bicycle." That film about young creative people in the big city suffered from a couple of scenes that while honest were exploitive and out of place in a generally good-natured film. One could also make that point about "The Tollbooth" mainly concerning a sub-plot involving one of the daughter's revelations that she is gay. But Kirschner doesn't choose to exploit this for laughs, sex appeal, or even really social commentary, rather, the subplot only enhances the texture of protagonist Sarabeth's life. Like I said about "Fish" things that make us giggle or wince happen all the time in real life, but not all of them should find their way to the screen. Luckily, Kirschner knows how to throttle back when necessary and focus on Sarabeth's angst in an interesting manner.
"The Tollbooth" is buffered greatly by wonderful performances. Ronald Guttman and Tovah Feldshuh shine as the thoughtful mother and father who have over the years instilled fears and even prejudices in their children. Their characters are not parodies but living people honestly written. Because every character in the film is an equal to everyone else, such characters are able to play off one another smartly. Rarely do we see a film that takes its time to introduce us to so many people without making at least one of them into a two-dimensional caricature. This kind of story-telling is refreshing.
"Cynical" is the word these days when I'm asked to review a coming of age drama. In this climate, it is exceedingly difficult to create a credible story that isn't some kind of exaggerated parody of real life featuring actors with perfect body parts playing characters much younger than they really are. And such films are junked up with farcical sex moments or artificially pumped with dank images of drug use or suicide. This becomes more complicated when narrative structure is often jumbled in an effort to put an edge on an otherwise dull story. "The Tollbooth" plays it straight and succeeds.
BY ILANA KRAMER
LILITH MAGAZINE - WINTER 2005
Sitting at a Chinese restaurant, 33-year-old Brooklynite filmmaker Debra Kirschner confides, "You know, itís such an uphill battle to be Ďfoundí as a filmmaker." So instead of waiting to be found, she decided to well Ďfindí herself. The result is her first independent feature film "The Tollbooth (2004)."
With Marla Sokoloff ("Dude, Whereís My Car") and Tovah Feldshuh, itís a modern-day spin on "Fiddler on the Roof."
Set in Brooklyn and Manhattan, "Tollbooth" tells the coming-of-age story of three close sisters and the disapproval they face from their traditional Jewish parents (one dates a Catholic boy, one is a lesbian, one has a husband whoís a financial flop). While the storyline belies the common theme of breaking away from strict parentage, the film exudes the true warmth and pain of trials within the family, with a hilarious edge reminiscent of "My Big Fat Greek Wedding" and "Kissing Jessica Stein." Says Kirschner, "I feel like Iím part of an interesting zeitgeist of filmmakers producing movies illustrating young women who donít want to reject their culture, yet feel a lot of their cultureís traditions are oppressive to women." Kirschner continues that, "In Jewish films, there is a lot of self-mocking, but also a lot of loving and embracing of culture too."
This is true of the youngest daughter Sarabeth (Sokoloff), rejecting her parentís dreams for her by dating a Catholic boy and becoming an artist in New York, yet painting the memories of Holocaust stories her father told her when she was a little girl. We also watch the middle daughter, devoutly religious, come out as a lesbian at the Rosh Ha Shana dinner, and the tenuous rift which opens as her mother initially rejects her identity.
Decidedly upbeat in its poking fun at a harried mother who thirsts only for a gaggle of Jewish son-in-laws and grandchildren, "The Tollbooth" asks the more critical questions as well, that frame traditionalism versus feminism in a Jewish context. Asks Sarabeth poignantly, "What is the point of being chosen if you donít have any choices?"
Before earning her film certificate from New York University, Kirschner, a self-proclaimed liberal and feminist, was writing feminist plays and dark fairytales. Says Kirschner, "This is a very Jewish story, and each woman has a storyline where they have to reconcile traditional upbringing with modern life" Undoubtedly, it is a stellar first feature film. In the private screening I attended, the room reverberated with laughter and tears, suggesting that Kirschner is one filmmaker who can pull at the heartstrings and at the same time keep her Jewish feminist politics in balance.
EXCERPT FROM EAST HAMPTON STAR - FILM FEST:
STORIES WITHOUT THE GLITZ
BY BAYLIS GREENE; OCTOBER 21, 2004
Watching the entries in the Golden Starfish features category at the Hamptons International Film Festival amounts to more than watching movies. You witness, between the cuts, during the silences, in what is being said and not said, movies being made.
One of the joys of the festival is the filmmakers´ concentration on storytelling, without pretensions to big-budget bombast and polish....
Handsome shots of New York City, by Stefan Forbes [also] highlight "The Tollbooth", which was written, directed, and produced by Debra Kirschner. But thereís no obsession with death here, rather a young womanís fight for a life of her own.
Marla Sokoloffís porcelain, moon face as Sarabeth Cohen dominates "The Tollbooth". Fair enough, itís her bildungsroman. And something about seeing her and her sister meander down a sidewalk with loads of laundry, sharing their dreams, recalls another striving city kid, Francie Nolan of "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn."
But the Cohens live in a handsome brownstone in that borough, not a tenement, and more important, a maudlin, piano-playing father is here a traditionally observant Jew, one who fills his daughterís head with tales of victimhood and too many quotations from Schopenhauer and Mel Brooks. Sarabeth needs to get the hell out of there.
And she does, taking up residence, in a hilarious visual pun on Manhattanís scandalous crush for space, in her sisterís closet, with a hanging, unadorned light-bulb for ambience. Slipping her parentsí octopus arms is only half the battle, of course. Sarabeth also has to face down her dead-end job, figure out how in the (art) world to mount a show of her paintings, and work things out one way or another with her boyfriend Simon, a rabbity goy from Pennsylvania.
The tollbooth, a gateway to that stateís suburban no-manís-land, acts as the bridge in "Saturday Night Fever": a border between worlds.
These movies [the five in narrative competition including Tollbooth], small-scale pleasures, have the pull of good short stories. Hollywood was once adept at this kind of thingÖ
EXCERPT FROM: "WHAT WE SAW AT THE HAMPTONS INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL"
DANíS PAPERS, EASTHAMPTON, NY OCTOBER 20, 2004
This film is a touchingly realistic depiction of a young woman who, fresh out of college, has one dream - to make it as an artist. Sarabeth (Marla Sokoloff) is the youngest of three girls raised by loving, albeit overbearing, Jewish parents in Brooklyn. Sarabeth moves in with her sister, the "perfect" middle child, a student at Columbia Medical School. She takes a job as a waitress and paints the emotions, both rebellious and accepting, of her first year after the umbilical cord is truly cut. The ties that bind the family are tested as all three sisters follow their paths to self-discovery, even if itís not the path their parents so lovingly (and blindingly) paved for them.
EXCERPT FROM "HAMPTONS FILM FESTIVAL:
INTERNATIONAL OFFERINGS INCLUDE SEVERAL NEW RELEASES WITH JEWISH THEMES,"
BY PETER ROTHHOLZ, WHICH APPEARED IN MANHATTAN JEWISH SENTINEL AND LONG ISLAND JEWISH WORLD
The Tollbooth is a lighthearted comedy that touches on a number of serious issues confronting many contemporary Jewish families. It was written, produced and directed by Debra Kirschner and tells the story of Sarabeth, a recent college graduate whose parents are children of Holocaust survivors. Sarabeth was brought up in a traditional Jewish home in Brooklyn and leaves to seek fame and fortune as a painter in Manhattan. The film is highly entertaining and provides plenty of laughs at the same time as it exposes some of the problems resulting from interfaith dating, social anti-semitism, parental ambition and homosexuality as well as the everyday hassles and frustrations of life in the city.
This is Kirschnerís first feature film and she admits to it being "loosely autobiographical." Kirschner grew up in Flushing and Levittown and graduated from Rutgers University in 1994. The Tollbooth was financed by private investors, friends and family and is "a labor of love." It was shot in and around New York with a cast including Marla Sokoloff as Sarabeth; Tovah Feldshuh as her mother; Idina Menzel, who won a Tony for Best Actress in Wicked as the sister; and an ensemble of talented young actors.
EXCERPT FROM SANDY DEETZ INTERVIEWING DEBRA KIRSCHNER
WIBQ TALK RADIO; 1220 AM - SARASOTA, ST. PETERSBERG, BRADENTON, FL
"I simply loved it! I loved the music in the picture, the beautiful language, the gorgeous shots of New York, and I loved the artwork. Sheís painting and her art is growing right with her. Thatís what won my heart!" - Sandy Deetz
EXCERPT FROM "THE WOMAN SHOW: AN ECLECTIC FEMINIST/WOMANIST RADIO MAGAZINE HOSTED BY MARY GLENNEY AND ARLENE ENGELHARDT;"
WMNF - TAMPA, FL
"I really loved this film....What I found exciting about this film - and I noticed you graduated a womenís studies major....is that there are so many levels to this film. What I found so impressive....What I really enjoyed is how you stayed honest to your basic values and you allowed them to kind of work through the film - one of the most beautiful things was the continuum and the struggle of faith in this time.... What makes it such a good film - you really show the power of love. This movie has love to spare! The music in your movie - I just found the way you drove that movie with music was fabulous. So many layers of love. You show people and how they survive in every way Visually itís really quite beautiful." - Mary Glenney
To listen to the entire interview: http://www.wmnf.org/programming
Click on The Women Show; February 5, 2005 (this interview is in the second half of the show that day)
TO HEAR AN INTERVIEW WITH ANN CORCORAN AND DEBRA KIRSCHNER ON MADY RADIO SRQ, SARASOTA, FLORIDA
EXCERPT FROM "FEST SHOWCASES NEW WAVE OF ISRAELI FILMS"
BY MISHA BERSONí SEATTLE TIMES MARCH 10, 2005
While there are also movies dealing with continuing reverberations from the Holocaust (including Daniel Anker's first-rate documentary, "Imaginary Witness: Hollywood and the Holocaust"), and with the tragedies and bloodshed on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict ("Behind Enemy Lines"), there's also some romantic comedy in the mix. (Tovah Feldshuh co-stars in "The Tollbooth," a blithe bagatelle about a young Jewish artist in 2004 New York City.)
LIGHTS, CAMERA . . .
6 APRIL 2005
Everyone loves a celebrity. Famous? We love famous.
Living vicariously through the movies is something we all enjoy. When the lights do down and the curtain goes up, we laugh, we cry. We wish we could be the super hero and give thanks that weíre not the dead villain. Movies are therapy -- at the cost of only five bucks an hour.
Method Fest 2005, the acclaimed independent film festival that closes tomorrow after an eight-day run in Calabasas, rolled out the red carpet -- there actually was one in front of the Edwards Cinema at the Commons -- and welcomed such stars as Martin Landau (Lifetime Achievement Award), Beau and Jeff Bridges (Family Legacy Award) and Crispin Glover (Maverick award). There were parties, film screenings, and enough young starlets talking on cell phones to become a movie in itself.
But that was only window dressing. What Method Fest really provided was a stage for young actors and filmmakers to have their work recognized, to hear people tell them yes, you can do it, just stick with it. Only one break is all it takes.
One of our favorites was the 80-minute West Coast premiere of "The Tollbooth," Debra Kirschnerís poignant tale of a young painter in Brooklyn who seeks balance between the demands of her overbearing Jewish parents and her desire to become a famous artist. During the film, the young woman learns that in order to be discovered, one must first discover oneself.
"If I am not for myself, then who will be for me?" says the artist, reflecting on her Jewish roots and her struggle to reach the top. "And if I am only for myself, who am I? And if not now, when?"
Be creative, seize the moment, but remember, not everyone can achieve stardom. Did our young artist finally hit the big time?
Not the point.
For most of us, itís the journey that counts, and thatís one script that life has taught us well.
EXCERPT FROM "THE MARYLAND FILM FESTIVAL SETS STAGE FOR ANNUAL ART HOUSE SCREENINGS"
BY MICHAEL A. KNIPP
BALTIMORE GAY LIFE ONLINE
APRIL 29TH, 2005
"Lesbians will also be given a nod at MFF with director Debra Kirschnerís latest project, The Tollbooth, playing on May 6 at 1:00 p.m. and May 8 at 11:00 a.m. at Charles Theatre 2.
Starring the underrated Marla Sokoloff, Tollbooth follows recent art school grad Sarabeth to New York City. Far from home (only 10 miles) and her college sweetheart, Simon, she takes a stab at a struggling photography career, while earnestly working to reacquaint herself with her parents and two older sisters - who refuse to accept her as an independent adult. But the attention is quickly lifted from Sarabeth when her pretty, medical-student sister reveals that sheís a lesbian, at dinner during a high holy day."
MARLA SOKOLOFF IN 'THE TOLLBOOTH'
FILM WELL WORTH THE TOLL; HAS PLENTY OF HEART.
22 OCTOBER 2004
SCOTT JAFFE FROM AKRON, OH (IN EAST HAMPTON, NY)
I just attended the World Premiere of "The Tollbooth" at the Hampton International Film Festival. Well-cast, well-acted, and very well-written this film has "heart"; at times I found myself either laughing or crying. The characters were very likable, and although sometimes exaggerated for comedic effect, the overall effect created a slice of realty to which I felt that I could easily relate. The story development did not move along predictable paths. At its end I found myself wanting more.
Considering production values, I wanted to acknowledge its soundtrack which is something I don't usually notice. It included lively original music, of a varied jazz variety, and also very clever use of sound effects especially the New York City street sounds that were used to underscore the 'starter' urban apartment that the main character inhabits. I liked the pacing of the editing. My only point detractions to the film were due to my being conscious of most automobile interior shots being shot from the back seat, but this is hardly a serious issue for an Indie.
This is my first IMDb review and their guidelines suggested including a comparable reference film. It brought to mind "Pieces of April" (2003) which also dealt with the theme of parent/child family relations and the struggle of young adults beginning independent life in New York. The Tollbooth adds the special cultural dynamics of an American-Jewish family.
Following our screening the writer/director Debra Kirschner did Q&A and I was surprised to learn that this was only her first full length film. I look forward to more from her.