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Sundance 2024 Review: Between the Temples – “a story that at its core is just about two lost souls.”

A still from Between the Temples by Nathan Silver, an official selection of the U.S. Dramatic Competition at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute. Photo by Sean Price Williams.

For his ninth feature film, writer-director Nathan Silver creates a dramedy with a personal connection.  That connection is his mother, Cindy, whom he filmed at her adult bat mitzvah study class while shooting a documentary series about her (Cutting My Mother). This scene was the original inspiration for Between the Temples, a heartfelt and quirky look at grief and connection.

Ben Gottleib (Jason Schwartzman) is a cantor at a temple.  The only problem is, he can’t sing, at least not anymore.  Ever since his wife passed away in an accident the year prior, he has lost his singing voice.  He sits silently during service while Rabbi Bruce (Robert Smigel) happily takes over singing privileges – though the attendees might have a different opinion.  Ben spends his time spreading salt on the walkways outside the temple, even if snow isn’t in the forecast, and teaching the bar/bat mitzvah class to the young congregants preparing to go through this rite of passage.

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While drowning his sorrows at a local bar, he happens to run into his old music teacher Carla Kessler (Carol Kane) who then shows up at his class, wanting to study for the bat mitzvah she never got to have.  As Ben’s mother (Caroline Aaron) and step-mother (Dolly De Leon) continue to try and set up up with promising young women, Ben instead finds comfort in his newfound connection with Carla.

With a script written alongside C. Mason Wells, Silver wastes no time introducing us to Ben and his family, as well as their expectations.  Everyone grieves in their own time, but his mothers clearly feel enough is enough.  The idea of expectation is all over this film, from the expectations of religion, our ideas around relationships as we age, grieving, and even the food we eat.  And they eat quite a bit in this film, often in extreme close-ups which are some of the odder editing and camera choices.  At least because it was shot on film, even when we are seeing burgers being chewed, the images look textured and rich.  

However, for me Between the Temples never really finds its balance between the comedy and the drama.  There are decent moments of both, but they aren’t consistent.  Its climax at the family’s Shabbat dinner shows just the absolute potential of this movie.  The film was shot over 18 days, and this scene alone took up two of them.  Just this one part took over three weeks to edit.  The scene is pure, genius chaos. It’s a bright point and reinvigorates the film as it starts to lull slightly.  I’d love to see a longer edit.

The cast of Between the Temples is all Jewish save for De Leon whose Filipino nationality was incorporated into the film.  Representation matters, and with this story revolving around Judaism, it’s important to have it treated with respect.  Schwartzman in fact was excited to be in the film so he could learn more about Judaism, and I expect an audience not as familiar with the religion will learn a lot as well. On a performance note, the entire cast is fantastic, especially Kane who always brings a special quality to the screen that makes her particularly fascinating.  And there is a really great cameo I won’t spoil here, but it was one time that I did laugh out loud. 

Between Two Temples has enough going for it to recommend, and I feel that this film will find an audience beyond its Sundance premiere.  There’s a lot of care and detail taken to make the film feel both respectful and loyal to its story, a story that at its core is just about two lost souls.  Ben and Carla are both looking for something to anchor them in life.  They’ve both lost their partners, Ben’s lost his voice and Carla is looking for her lost heritage that she has stifled for so long.  There’s definite ambiguity in the relationship of these two main characters by the end.  How far does their intimacy truly stretch?  That’s something Silver seems to save for us to figure out.  

Between the Temples premiered at the Sundance Film Festival January 19 2024.  For more information go to

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