War Comes to Brooklyn

Alan and Naomi

Screenplay by Jordan Horowitz

Directed by Sterling Van Wagener

Despite a plot that sometimes creaks with unlikelihood and moans with torpor, Alan and Naomi survives as a gripping tale, well ahead of the current brood of U.S. movies.

Set in Brooklyn in 1944, Alan and Naomi zooms in on a slender, almost fragile 14-year-old named Alan Silverman (played by child prodigy Lukas Haas, a veteran of Witness and Rambling Rose and many other major productions). Alan excels at stickball and building balsa and epoxy airplanes; dangling from his bedroom ceiling are models of the Hellcats that Navy and Marine Corps pilots are flying in the Pacific, as well as their European counterparts, the Army Air Corps P-38s with which the British are scourging the Reich’s Messerschmitts in machine gun duels over Normandy. Not surprisingly, no plane of Hitler’s Luftwaffe hangs from this all-American Jewish kid’s ceiling.

Alan and his best friend, a scrappy Irish lad named Shaun Kelly (Kevin Connolly), team up to build and fly their balsa planes at a deserted airport, and on the rough Brooklyn streets they back each other up as stickball devotees.

Alan and Naomi begins with a spectacular view of a crowded Brooklyn street where a stickball game is in progress. A vintage truck rumbles through. Laundry and spectators drape from the windows. Although the scene was actually filmed for economic reasons in Wilmington, North Carolina, it is alive with New York City claustrophobic poverty and aggressive grit.

Alan is at bat, contending with a menacing, bullyish pitcher named Joe Condello (Charlie Dow). On the verge of striking out, he smacks a soaring foul ball that crashes through a third-story window, elating all the players and the spectators. In Brooklyn, a busted window on the third floor, whether foul or fair, is a greater thrill than a home run.

Joe, a dead ringer for a modern-day “skinhead,” picks a fight with Alan that Shaun breaks up, but there is little doubt that Joe, a nasty brute with his flat-top hairdo and bulging gut, will undoubtedly have his revenge.

That evening Alan’s fast-talking and insistent “Jewish mother” Ruth (played with a zesty feistiness by Amy Aquino of Working Girl and Moonstruck) tells Alan that a new girl has moved in next door, a Parisian named Naomi Kirschenbaum (Vanessa Zaoui, an accomplished young actress imported from Paris for the role). This new girl on the block, after witnessing the SS murder of her father, is now a mentally maimed catatonic.

Ruth quickly sticks Alan with the chore of bringing Naomi back to life, though it means giving up his afternoon stickball games to spend time rehabilitating the new French girl. Like any other red-blooded Tom Sawyer rebelling against forced fraternization with the opposite sex, Alan goes into a furious tailspin and crashes on his bed, defying his mother and yielding not a grain of sympathy for a mercy mission to save the stricken child next door.

This is when Alan’s father Sol (Michael Gross, star of TV’s “Family Ties”) swings into action. Michael Gross is an intriguing actor, at times resembling a trim, 40-ish Marlon Brando, and at other times resembling a graying antithesis of Hitler. Sol and Alan’s father-son scene is a moving depiction of what wise, patient fathers can accomplish with headstrong sons.

Cornered by his father’s gentle yet relentless logic, Alan surrenders with one last question, “Why me?”

“Maybe because you’re one of the lucky ones,” the sage Sol answers. Alan, now hooked, is suddenly thoughtful. For director Sterling Van Wagener, this clash and reconciliation in the Silverman household is a masterful portrayal of a functional family functioning.

But wooing Naomi into talkativeness will not be as easy as knocking a ball through a third-floor window. When Alan first meets Naomi, he is ushered into her bedroom by their neighbor Mrs. Liebman (played by Zohra Lampert, a lovely woman but limited to one facial expression, an ear-to-ear grin) and Naomi’s stricken mother, Mrs. Kirschenbaum (another dead-in-the-water character haplessly played by Victoria Christian, who is given so small a part she seems more shadow than character).

Yet the power of Lukas Haas’ acting sweeps beyond the wreckage of Mrs. Liebman and Mrs. Kirschenbaum as he steps into Naomi’s room as if stepping up to bat at a stickball game that knows no rules. Naomi, sitting on her bed, looks like a demented yogi, her blond hair in a wild Janis Joplin/Shirley Temple tangle. Naomi’s eyes, insanely vacant, stare into her ruined past as she compulsively rips newspaper into shreds. Vanessa Zaoui’s acting prowess is eerily unnerving, an excellent match for Lukas Haas’ sensitive portrayal of fear and courage.

Seeing the insane, catatonic Naomi for the first time, Alan’s eyes, usually dark circles of intelligence and vulnerability, widen with a fear that edges towards panic, then narrow as he thinks up a plan and speaks to her, only to be horrified when Naomi delivers a fusillade of hysterical shrieks that causes Alan to turn tail and run like a terrified deer. In this first meeting with the severely traumatized Naomi, mighty Alan has struck out.

The next day Alan, true to form, gathers his courage and tries again, this time finding Naomi still on her bed, but calmer and rocking her doll Yvette. Here the story takes an unlikely turn that forces the audience to take a considerable leap of faith when Alan returns to his relatively impoverished home, pulls from a trunk a brand new and presumably costly ventriloquist’s dummy named Wrangler Jack, and races back to Naomi. How did Wrangler Jack get into the Silverman household? A show-biz uncle? The father’s abortive foray in vaudeville? Who knows? And now—presto!—Alan becomes an accomplished ventriloquist. As plots go, this surprise entrance of Wrangler Jack is jarring, but thanks to Lukas Haas and Vanessa Zaoui’s relentlessly excellent acting and an otherwise compelling story, Alan and Naomi keeps up its attack, the clumsy introduction of Wrangler Jack causing no more damage than an exploding landmine that hurts no one.

Finer moments do indeed lie ahead. Alan speaks through the dummy, not to Naomi, but to her doll Yvette, and finally—at a lovely moment—Naomi, with her hair still an angelic tangle and her blue eyes deep-set and tortured, speaks back, not for herself, but for her doll Yvette.

At this point the audience must weather another accidental explosion in the plot. Naomi, the catatonic princess from France, speaks her first words in months in English! Even her anxious mother speaks only in French. There is no mention of Naomi’s mastering English in grade school before the first of Hitler’s invincible Panzers rattled down the Champs Elysee. Where does her near flawless English come from? The same trunk as Wrangler Jack?

Naomi’s English pulls the plug on the plot. She no longer seems real, but staged, and her catatonic plight looks more like a hoax than a mental disaster. Her English also precludes dramatic possibilities. Imagine the gentle struggling if the delicate Yvette was limited to French while speaking with that hardy Yank, Wrangler Jack. And imagine the poignancy when Naomi and Alan put the dolls aside and struggle in the other’s language. Exactly why Naomi emerges from her catatonic tomb chirping in English is a mystery only director Anderson and screenplay writer Jordan Horowitz can answer; Naomi’s miraculous English is never essential to the further unfoldings of the plot.

Side-stepping this bottomless pothole of Naomi’s English, Vanessa Zaoui’s restrained and appealing performance puts the movie quickly back on track, as do flashbacks that explain her catatonia. In the flashbacks, as the SS pounds up the steps to her apartment, Naomi and her father, a Resistance fighter, desperately rip up maps of German targets. Just before the Nazis break down the door, her father flushes the map fragments down the toilet and pushes Naomi under a bed.

This is where Alan and Naomi earns its “PG” (Parental Guidance) rating for what the New York Times terms “mild violence.” Cowering under the bed, Naomi sees a flurry of clunky Nazi jackboots and then her father falling to the floor inches from her hiding place. His dying eyes look into her eyes; his face is hideously mangled.

At this point, about 40 minutes of movie time have lapsed. With Naomi now talking and the secret of her trauma now displayed graphically, the problem is what to do for the remaining hour, and so the movie takes a dramatic nosedive, opting mainly for long and lovely episodes of flying model planes as Naomi slowly steps back into the joy of life, sharing Alan’s love of flight while transferring her love for her murdered father to her vibrant 14-year-old hero.

About the time one more flight of a model airplane might drive you from the theater, the plot is suddenly complicated when Naomi’s psychiatrist pronounces her sufficiently recovered to begin junior high school. This fragile, mentally maimed girl from Paris is about to be educated Brooklyn-style. Good luck.

But as Alan walks her to school (the school officials have obligingly given them the same classes), Alan and Naomi looks like it is about to wrap up with a happy twist, optimistic for Naomi’s recovery and Alan’s growing into a genuine Galahad with armor fully intact. The happy ending is foiled, though, when Joe, the fascist skinhead pitcher who is twice Alan’s size, taunts Naomi and her knight with anti-Semitic jibes. When Alan challenges the ogre, he is quickly pinned down and pummeled.

This fight between Alan and Joe is probably more of what the New York Times had in mind by “mild violence,” but for Naomi the beating that Alan takes pulls her back into the hellish vision of her father’s death, opening the wounds of her trauma and causing her to run from the schoolyard screaming.

With a 200-pound opponent still sitting on his chest, Alan takes a brutal bashing until his old friend Shaun steps in and with the pugilistic talent which is second nature to young Irishmen, swats Joe’s nose with a devastating right cross, causing a mild trickle of blood to flow. Alan now slips out from under the giant and delivers another well-aimed swat at Joe’s swelling nose. Then together, Jewish boy and Irish lad, two welter-weights with a vengeance, go to work on Joe until he turns tail and runs. Thus to fascists.

Alan and Shaun are now schoolyard heroes, but where is Naomi? A hunt begins and continues for hours with the well-meaning NYPD joining in, but Naomi cannot be found. Finally, in a furnace room with arched ovens flaming, pointedly reminiscent of the furnaces Mercedes crafted with customary meticulous skill for the Führer’s killing chambers, Alan circles Naomi’s crazed face in a flashlight beam, wild-eyed and hopelessly mad. With Naomi now beyond even the healing ministries of Wrangler Jack, Alan and Naomi threatens to end as tragedy.

In a final scene that might redden even the eyes of Duke for President zealots, Alan searches eagerly for Naomi on the grounds of a mental hospital and finds her seated alone on a white bench, her hair tousled, her vacant eyes rimmed with the shadows of madness. Alan, now a dented but undaunted Galahad, sits cautiously beside her, relieved to have found her. In the movie’s last moment, Naomi lays her head gently on Alan’s shoulder.

What makes Alan and Naomi a superior movie, one that sets a standard in American filmmaking, despite its clunkings in plot, is its exploration of the need people have for other people. Rather than the usual Hollywood Coliseum-like entertainments, Alan and Naomi offers more. Not only are we reminded of the deeds which a “united” Germany once perpetrated, but on a more personal level, apart from the obvious religious and political overlays, the impact of childhood trauma, whether from jack-booted Nazis, schoolyard bullies, or an indifferent society.

Alan and Naomi is also an affirmation of family values, perhaps the same ones we hear President Bush tirelessly invoking, if not describing or buttressing. The murder of Naomi’s father separates her wounded mind from reality, and the only functioning she is capable of is ripping up newspapers in the deluded hope that if she never stops, the storm troopers will not break down her door. She is like a drug addict, a lost soul in perpetual flight from a past she cannot contend with.

Alan, on the other hand, benefits from a father who is not only alive but patient, wise, and inspiring, while Alan’s mother pushes him to try harder and always do his best. Ultimately, the appeal of Alan and Naomi is its depiction of humanity’s ability to nurture and rescue humanity.

The Leucadia Film Corporation, the Utah-based company that shared in the production of Alan and Naomi, says that it intends to continue producing mature films suitable for the whole family—in other words, good American films that do not divide American families. The question now is, in the hustling arena of today’s American movie culture, whether films of Alan and Naomi quality will make enough money to exist.


  • Ed Simmons, Jr.

    At the time this article was written, Ed Simmons, Jr., was a poet, playwright, and free-lance writer in Washington, D.C.

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