Esther in Wonderland sees a young married woman testing the boundaries of her existence within Chasidic life in this 13-minute film.
There’s a lot of pressure on young married Chasidic women to get pregnant. This is clear during the opening frames of Esther in Wonderland. When we first meet Esther (Naian González Norvind), she’s in the shower. Also, a trigger warning for anyone because it appears that she’s also having her period, too. On the outside looking in, Esther appears to be the typical Chasidic woman. This soon changes within a matter of minutes. Filmmaker Stephanie Bollag also manages to weave in some archive footage from Crown Heights in the early 1990s. Before we know it, Esther is drawn by what appears to be hip-hop music. She also seems to be familiar with one of them named Dream. Esther only looks on. She never gets up to dance with them, which could possibly lead to mixed dancing. Crisis averted for the time being.
During the final frames, one gets the sense that Esther is questioning her religious identity. Will her marriage last? This is hard to say. Bollag just leaves the ending open to what could possible happen. The film is being developed into a feature film so it’s possible we’ll see more of the story. However, thirteen minutes just doesn’t feel like enough time. I feel like we’re only getting a brief glimpse into what should be a longer film.
Some things to note since I know it’s sure to come up: the lead actress is not Jewish. The director is Jewish but there is a lot to be said about not casting Jewish actors in Jewish roles. This is something that dates back to classic Hollywood and of course, this was a time when the studio moguls were Jewish. The other thing that is a turn-off: a closing credit song repeatedly using the n word. We’re talking about a Chasidic community in the 1990s and while I don’t discount that racism exists within the frum community, I have a hard time buying into Chasidic Jews listening to this song in particular. All of this said, the credits note that cast member Pesach Eisen is also a religious advisor for the film.
In terms of Chasidic portrayals, this film feels pretty accurate. Esther in Wonderland is not like other films where you can catch the butchering in every scene. But still, I can’t help but feel like the song selection during the credits is going to be a major turn-off for potential frum viewers.
DIRECTOR: Stephanie Bollag
SCREENWRITERS: Stephanie Bollag, Lily Lyor Askenazi
CAST: Naian González Norvind, Martha Bernabel, Sawandi Wilson, Pesach Eisen, Odylle Beder, Jennifer Acosta, Nadjaya Delgado, Samantha Dunn