Barry Levinson is the writer/director for this personal tale of life in 1950’s Baltimore where racism against Jews is a major theme, at least for the kids in the film.
The story is narrated by Ben (Ben Foster who sounds very much like Richard Dreyfuss), the youngest member of the Kurtzman household. We see him mostly hanging out with his friends while confronting signs at the local swimming pool that say “No dogs and No Jews…”. He’s irreverent, dressing up like Hitler for a Halloween party that his parents won’t let him attend and being enamored of the black girl in his class named Sylvia (Rebekah Johnson). Older brother Van and his college friends confront discrimination on both the religious as well as the class level. Van’s choice for a girl is the very rich and out-of-reach Dubby (Carolyn Murphy) who’s already going out with Van’s WASP friend Trey. It makes for some interesting conflict.
There’s mom Ada (Bebe Neuwirth) who rarely questions the complications of husband Nate’s (Joe Mantegna) business affairs, running a burlesque theater and numbers racket on the side. She the stay-at-home type whose job it is to discipline the boys.
The film weaves in and out of the stories of Ben, Van and Nate with Ben’s I think being the most involving. His interest in Sylvia is genuine and it’s fun to watch how the two try to develop a friendship despite what their parents and society at large might think.
Annoying is the inclusion of too many shots of burlesque strippers flanking Nate’s tale of his run in with Little Melvin, a black hustler trying to move in on Nate’s numbers racket.
Look for a mood piece as only Levinson can give you – good character development but a slow mosey down Liberty Heights way. Fans of his previous “Diner” might receognize the old place in a few of the shots.
Lotta says “Liberty Heights” is for Levinson fans. It’s generally good story telling and the look of the ’50’s is certainly all there as are the social mores. But I can’t say I jumped up and down about this one. I must not be a die-hard Levinson fan, but I do respect the quality of the work, in this case.