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Friday, November 16, 2018

Review: The Samuel Project

Art. History. Life.

By Chris Sabga

Release Date: October 5th, 2018 – U.S. • Rating: PG-13 • Genre: Drama • Running Time: 93 minutes • Director: Marc Fusco • Writers: Marc Fusco, Chris Neighbors, Steve Weinberger • Cast: Hal Linden, Ryan Ochoa, Michael B. Silver, Mateo Arias, Philippe Bowgen, Catherine Siggins, Callie Gilbert, Pia Thrasher, Trina Kaplan, Dylan James Weinberger, Malina Moye, Liza Lapira

"You're a lucky kid."

That's what Samuel Bergman (the great Hal Linden of "Barney Miller" fame) tells his 17-year-old grandson, Eli (Ryan Ochoa). 

The teenager retorts that "old people" – "adults," he quickly corrects himself – always say that.

In this case, it's true. But Grandpa isn't talking.
A surprise letter leads to an unexpected meeting between Samuel and a dear old friend of his named Uma (Trina Kaplan). 

Eli is full of questions:

– Who is this woman?

– How does Samuel know German?

– What is the story behind the teenage girl and the bandaged boy in the photograph Eli saw?

Questions without answers, because Grandpa still isn't talking. 

It would end up being Samuel's last meeting with Uma.

Not even Matzo Ball Soup – courtesy of a surprise nighttime visit from Eli – is enough to get the old man to open up. Some things are too tough to talk about.

The reason for the soup and the visit: Samuel doesn't show up for work that morning. He runs a successful dry-cleaning business in San Diego. One of Samuel's employees has been there eight years and says his boss has never missed a day of work in all that time. Samuel is the best in town, according to his customers – even if he can't ever seem to remove a stain from the butcher's apron. The butcher's name is Vartan (Ken Davitian), and he comes around to the store not only to have his clothes cleaned, but also to exchange constant verbal jabs with Samuel and continue their seemingly never-ending chess game on a board set up behind the counter. 

Meanwhile, Eli wants to be an artist – much to the chagrin of his father, Robert (Michael B. Silver), who is still struggling to pay the bills even with a "real job." Robert's advice: go to community college, get a degree in a stable profession, and be an artist on the weekend. But Eli has to be an artist now because he has been assigned a "historia" project in Mr. Turner's (Philippe Bowgen) media class. The winning entry gets a scholarship to art school, which Eli desperately needs because he doesn't have his father's support – financial or otherwise. Samuel doesn't quite understand his grandson's "doodles" either, but he's fascinated that people can actually make a living doing that.

For the project, Eli pairs up with Kasim (Mateo Arias), a brooding musician who is being pressured into working at his father's butcher shop. (Free Matzo Ball soup to anyone who can figure out which character Kasim is related to.) Even Eli – reflecting his own father's dream-crushing negativity – thinks Kasim's future is as a butcher. (Another free bowl of Matzo Ball Soup if you can figure out what – and who – Eli and Kassim's project will be about.)

The way to a man's heart is usually through his stomach, but as we saw with Eli's offer of Matzo Ball Soup, that doesn't work with Samuel. In this case, the way to a man's heart is through is through free employment. Eli offers to work at the dry-cleaning store before and after school without pay if Samuel will open up to him. That story – about a young boy whose entire family was torn away from him in the blink of an eye by the Nazis, the teenage girl who rescued him from a gunshot wound inflicted by her own father, and his eventual journey to America all alone – becomes the basis for both Eli's project and the movie itself. 

"The Samuel Project" works because all of the characters come across as real people. Their interactions feel natural. There's a certain "lived-in" quality to everything we see in the movie. Much of that has to be credited to masterful veteran actor Hal Linden, whose "Barney Miller" is still considered one of the most realistic cop characters and shows ever put to film – but his Samuel Bergman is a worthy successor several decades later. Young Ryan Ochoa is every bit as good as his experienced co-star and has a bright future ahead of him if this movie is any indication. The teacher, Mr. Turner, is played nicely by Philippe Bowgen – with the sharp, sarcastic edge of a jaded instructor who still cares about and encourages the students willing to put in the time and effort. Ken Davitian, as the butcher, is an entertaining presence who adds just the right touch of lightness to his scenes. Mateo Arias does the same as Eli's project partner, Kasim. 

There are no major surprises in "The Samuel Project," but there don't need to be. It shines because it shows all of those little moments that come with living a life. 

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