An eight-year old girl starts becoming obsessed about the Holocaust and dresses up as her estranged grandmother in Heritage Day.
The film brings up something that is true for many in the 1980s. Heritage Day, which has been playing the film festival circuit, could not be more timely as current levels are antisemitism makes 2023 look like 1939. I’ve read enough books to know the discomfort that many had about discussing their Holocaust experiences. Steven Spielberg’s cinematic masterpiece, Schindler’s List, would change everything. As a result of the film, Spielberg would start up the USC Shoah Foundation. In doing so, more Holocaust survivors would record their stories for future generations.
Writer-director Lara Everly takes a dark comedy approach to Heritage Day. Jews use gallows humor when it comes to certain situations so I appreciate Everly’s approach from a cinematic perspective. If you’re looking for a documentary that tackles the Holocaust and humor, I highly recommend watching Ferne Pearlstein’s The Last Laugh. Anyway, Everly is a third generation descendant of Holocaust survivors and uses the film as a way of discussing the stigma that surrounds conversations about history. She does this by way of a mother and daughter, Sarah (Rachel Bloom) and Evie (Vivien Lyra Blair). There should not be any shame in discussing the Holocaust but 1985 is much different than 2023. For starters, we’re reliving the late 1930s right now with rampant antisemitism in every which direction. As the filmmaker says in her director’s statement:
“Children often don’t understand the culture and social lines of what games are okay to play. The film explores the comedic irony that Evie is recreating a world that everyone else is trying to forget. Evie is at the age where her truth drives her actions way more than social norms and in the 80’s, social norms were pretty key.”
Evie decides to discuss her grandmother’s story for Heritage Day. Her grandmother, Hannah, survived the Holocaust. Much to Sarah’s dismay, Evie also dresses up as a person living in the concentration camps with a Magen David on her clothing.
Here’s a small example of the dialogue in the film and keep in mind that it takes place in 1985:
Evie: “Why the Jews? What did we do?”
Sarah: “We did nothing. Hitler was a bad person and he had some very bad ideas.”
Sarah has a complicated relationship with her mother for reasons that I’m not going to discuss in this review. Let’s just say that it leads to some further dialogue, which should just stress the importance of communication. The school principal, Margot (Pamela Murphy), meets with Sarah and it is not unfair to say that it turns into a therapy session. Meanwhile, Evie is fully committed to living a concentration camp lifestyle like other Jews during the late 1930s and early 1940s.
Evie: “Grandma says never forget so I’m not forgetting.”
Sarah thinks that the episode is Evie’s way of acting out as the situation becomes chaotic. But anyway, the acting out leads to some important conversations. Sarah don’t even really know her friends–such as Greta (Sierra Katow)–because they don’t discuss history. Look how history is taught or not taught in school. If we do not learn our history, we are doomed to repeat it.
What I appreciate about the film is that it does not exploit Jewish trauma. We really do need more Jewish stories out there and while it’s important to learn about the Holocaust, such dramas only yell awards bait. I’ll give Hallmark credit for trying with Chanukah but there are more Jewish stories out there (filmmaker Jonah Feingold just started production on 31 Candles and I can’t wait to see it). While we never see Hannah appearing on screen, her presence is felt throughout the almost 20 minute short film. The only time we hear her voice is when Sarah places a phone call at the end. Is it a sign that the estrangement in their relationship is cracking? Possibly but this is where Lara Everly decides to end the film.
While Heritage Day tackles things from a comedic lens, a key lesson is that people should not be uncomfortable talking about the Holocaust. The Holocaust might not be an easy subject to teach to young children but it’s one that many Jews learned about early on because of the 2000+ year history of persecution against the Jewish people.
DIRECTOR/SCREENWRITER: Lara Everly
CAST: Rachel Bloom, Vivien Lyra Blair, Scott Michael Foster, Sierra Katow, Pamela Murphy, Kirk Fox, Alex Jane Go, Tamara Perry, and introducing Dewey Jamison