The High Holiday season is upon us.
Teshuvah — a central tenet of these holidays — literally translates to “return,” but what exactly this concept means has been heavily debated by rabbinic scholars for thousands of years. Some say it entails a public act of confession, while others describe it as an internal process of change. For some it’s necessarily interpersonal; for others, introspective. Navigating these competing conceptions can be a daunting task, especially for anxious Jews like us. So we turn where we always turn: the movies! As Rabbi Nicole Kidman says “our heroes feel like the best parts of us;” watching figures onscreen navigate their own challenges can inspire recognition, change and evolution in ourselves as well. So, for those of you who are similarly cinematically inclined, here are some film recommendations to get you thinking about what teshuvah might mean for you.
Note: We’ve divided these selections into five pairs based on differing interpretations of teshuvah inspired by articles written by Rabbi Avi Bart and Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks z”l. We recommend referencing those pieces for a more comprehensive understanding of teshuvah.
Repenting for Sin or Wrongdoing
A central motif of the High Holiday liturgy is Vidui (Confession): acknowledging what one has done which requires amending. Naming wrongdoing aloud is a key step in the process. Robert Zemeckis’s “Flight” centers this phenomenon. Denzel Washington plays an alcoholic airline pilot who is being investigated for a crash landing which viewers know he completed under the influence. Throughout the film, the question of what will be revealed publicly and what he’ll own up to when it comes to his actions and his addiction is dangled in front of the viewer. Without giving the specifics away, the movie’s climax acts as an almost shocking moment of vulnerability and a powerful example of giving voice to what one needs to change as part of the process of changing it. Available to rent or buy online.
“One Child Nation” (2019)
In this searching, searing documentary, director Nanfu Wang explores the repercussions of China’s former one-child policy, including those for her own family. In one powerful scene, Wang speaks with the midwife who helped birth her. Haunted by years of administering forced sterilizations and abortions on women who didn’t consent and in some cases were abducted, the midwife dedicated herself in retirement to helping couples struggling with infertility have children. Throughout this documentary, viewers are confronted with people full of regret, struggling with questions that are also a central part of the High Holiday season: How can we make up for harm we’ve caused in the past? And is it always possible? Available on Amazon Prime.
When you think of this raunchy blockbuster, you probably don’t think of the Talmud. But in one of the core scenes of the film, down-on-her-luck Annie (Kristen Wiig) has a passive aggressive yet profound conversation with the wealthy, snobby Helen (Rose Burns) regarding people’s capacity to change. Their disagreement actually mirrors a debate Talmudic sages Rabbi Yochanan and Reish Lakish have on teshuvah.
Helen/Rabbi Yochanan argue that people change: one moment they’re sinners and the next they’re righteous. Annie/Reish Lakish argue that the human core remains the same, but people can grow into a more developed version of themselves. That’s the crux of this film, too, as Annie is forced to figure out who she is outside of her best friend Lilian (Maya Rudolph). She allows herself to move beyond her disappointments and keep working on who she wants to be. Melissa McCarthy’s uncouth character delivers a line summing this up (and a turn of phrase worthy of a High Holiday sermon): “You’re your problem, but you’re also your solution.” Available on Netflix
“Groundhog Day” (1993)
According to Maimonides, the teshuvah process is complete when one is faced with the same situation in which they erred, and makes a different choice the second time around. Perhaps no movie better serves as the paradigm of this definition than “Groundhog Day.” The film follows Phil Conners (Bill Murray), a bitter, sardonic weatherman who finds himself trapped repeating the same day over and over again. Only when he leans into helping others — after cycling through many, many versions of hedonism and nihilism — is he freed from the time loop.
The fact that the film has spawned a mini-genre of time loop movies (see: “Edge of Tomorrow,” “Palm Springs,” “The Map of Tiny Perfect Things,” et al) speaks to the resonance of the fantasy: What if you had the chance to redo your mistakes, to continually perfect your behavior? While outside of movies, such loops don’t occur, we will all eventually find ourselves facing similar choices to ones we regret making in the past. This season is one for reflecting on how we might adjust ourselves at such crossroads when living out whatever our personal version of Groundhog Day might be. Available on Netflix.
Returning to Our Past
“Let your head rest on my head, I got you,” says Juan (Mahershala Ali) when teaching “Little” Chiron (Alex Hibbert) how to swim; this tender exchange is in heavy contrast to the harshness of their world. “Moonlight” follows Chiron, a young Black man growing up in Miami, on his journey from childhood to adulthood as he navigates his relationship to queer identity and masculinity. The film celebrates vulnerability while depicting the difficulty that Chiron has accepting it, as he seems to run away from moments of gentleness and love in his life. The first steps to teshuvah involve returning to the vulnerable moments in your year, sitting with them, and building from there — which Chiron ultimately takes on in a stunning and delicate ending. Available on Max.
“Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” (2004)
Reflecting is exhausting and sometimes harrowing, and that is why the central conceit of this film — a procedure to erase painful memories — is so enticing. After breaking up, Joel (Jim Carrey) and Clementine (Kate Winslet) both attempt to erase their relationship and any knowledge of the other from each of their minds. In doing so, they literally walk through past memories, retracing their steps to figure out what went wrong in the relationship. This film is sentimental and romantic without being heavy-handed, and asks big questions about how our pasts inescapably shape us. Like all of screenwriter Charlie Kaufman’s works, the answers are somewhat ambiguous, but in this bittersweet film, as in the teshuvah process, reckoning is the only way forward. Available on IQIYI.
Connecting with Something Greater than Yourself
Extraterrestrial stories have long served as analogues for a spiritual search for meaning. In the former, the search is literal and in the latter its metaphysical, but both ask the same questions: Am I part of something bigger? Is anybody watching me? Is there something out there? In this adaptation of a Ted Chiang novella, a linguist played by Amy Adams grapples with how to communicate with an alien invasion but finds the answers have deeper implications about humanity’s ability to cooperate, about space and time and about accepting the story of our own lives. Available on Netflix.
“The Wedding Plan” / “Laavor et Hakir” (2016)
After her fiancé calls off their wedding only 22 days before the big day, Michal (Noa Koler) decides to keep the date, hoping that another love will present himself and marry her under the chuppah. While the concept sounds fizzy and light-hearted, the premise is not played for laughs. Michal lives in a society that tells her that what God wants from her is to be married. So, she takes God to task, requesting a personal Chanukah miracle: that husband. The film – while never questioning the existence of a Higher Power – ultimately posits that finding God in one’s life can be as hard as finding one’s bashert (soulmate). “The Wedding Plan” is a powerful story about the balance between the Jewish concepts of Hishtadlus (what it means to make our own destiny) and Emunah (having faith that the universe will provide for us what we need). Available free with ads on Youtube.
“Real Women Have Curves” (2002)
Before “Lady Bird” (a very worthy honorable mention for this list), there was “Real Women Have Curves,” a coming-of-age story about a young Mexican-American woman faced with the choice of going to New York for college or staying in East Los Angeles to help support her family. A then-17-year-old America Ferrera plays Ana in a vivacious and star-turning performance that includes struggling with a fraught relationship with her mother, her body, and the way her mother controls her eating. Ultimately the film is about Ana discovering and learning to love herself, despite the conflicting demands surrounding her. As we navigate the self-scrutiny of Teshuva, we too can learn to appreciate ourselves, even in the face of tension and insecurity. Available on Max.
“Inside Out” (2015)
In “Inside Out,” anthropomorphized feelings Joy (Amy Poehler) and Sadness (Phyllis Smith) struggle to find their role in their host Riley’s (Kaitlyn Dias) life, and in their pursuit of self-actualization find their strengths, limitations and validity. The “heady” tale somehow manages to capture the fun energy of the best adventure movies and the catharsis of a good cry. Ten long days of teshuvah can bring up all sorts of emotions, and this film reminds us that it’s okay to feel all of them. Available on Disney+.