At the press screening of Praying With Lior, many of the critics around me openly sobbed. This doc is a hardcore tearjerker. Its subject is a Jewish boy with Down syndrome preparing for his Bar Mitzvah; Lior Liebling enjoys leading others in prayer so much that he is known as the Little Rebbe. His mother died of breast cancer when he was six, and director Ilana Trachtman milks the boys honest, simple sorrow for all its worth. We get ample footage of Mommy Devora singing with Lior, playing with Lior, and, yes, praying with Lior. Trachtmans movie is not technically accomplishedthe camerawork is run-of-the-mill, the structure is ramblingbut its redeemed by the deliciously complex, practically Balzac-ian family at its center. Liors father, Mordechai, is a prominent rabbi who demands a great deal from his son even as he adores him. Stepmother Lynne is devoted to Lior, but her place among the Lieblings seems precarious and hard-won. Liors siblings are thoughtful and frank about the challenges of living with their brother and longing for their mother. Everyone still reels from the loss of Devora, whose fierce love for both her children and her religion dominates the film, almost against the familys will. I would have liked to see Trachtman focus more on these dynamics and less on Liors sunny, prayerful disposition. He is undoubtedly a charmer, but this is a kid with limited verbal abilitieshes retarded, as his father bluntly puts itand Trachtmans prodding, leading questions make the endeavor distinctly uncomfortable. At times, the film dances perilously close to painting him as a holy fool, rather than a boy who loves to pray and lives to please.
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