‘13: The Musical’ Review: Mild Anxieties in Middle America

“13: The Musical,” a plucky crowd-pleaser about the pressure to put on a blowout bar mitzvah, opens with the young Manhattanite Evan Goldman (Eli Golden) raging at his parents’ ultimate party foul. They’ve divorced, forcing the boy and his mom (Debra Messing) to shift their lives — and his pending bash — to the home of his grandmother (Rhea Perlman) in Walkerton, Ind., a town so small that their arrival triples its Jewish population. Nevertheless, the social-climbing eighth grader is determined to pack his dance floor, even if it means enmeshing himself as a love adviser to the school’s most popular kids (JD McCrary and Lindsey Blackwell) and backing away from his initial friends (Gabriella Uhl and Jonathan Lengel) when he discovers that they’re dorks.

Briefly, Evan is concerned that his religion will make him an outsider, especially as one classmate, a terrifically funny shallow snit played by Frankie McNellis, warns the other students that bar mitzvahs are “where they make you talk backwards and everyone gets circumcised.” But once the film checks off the expected city versus country gripes about bagels (none), cows (too many) and the unnerving rural silence (“How can anyone sleep with all this quiet!”), the director Tamra Davis aims to sell the film’s young audience on an inclusive vision of America that quickly soothes any apprehensions of antisemitism, as well as most of the other anxieties of adolescence. The screenwriter Robert Horn not only buffs the bullying subplots from the book of his 2008 Broadway musical (which he co-wrote with Dan Elish) until Evan no longer has to punch a football jock in the nose — he’s made the tensions so subterranean that certain dramatic plot points barely make sense.

Still, Davis is a veteran at showcasing youthful singing talent. (Her previous credits include the Britney Spears vehicle “Crossroads,” the hip-hop cult comedy “CB4” and the Hanson music video for “MMMBop.”) She and the cinematographer Adam Santelli turn the frame into a shoe box diorama for the dynamic cast, who belt and dance while staring directly at the camera. While every image is as bright and colorful as a new box of crayons, the kids themselves never come across as artificial, thanks in part to Jamal Sims’ naturalistic but crisp choreography, which emphasizes stomps and leans and long-legged strides.

The songs, by Jason Robert Brown, aren’t bad either, particularly a bluesy number crooned by the football squad (“Bad News”), a catty rock ballad backed by a marching band (“Opportunity”) and a new-for-the-screen, finger-snapping charmer where Evan entices his schoolmates to sneak into an R-rated horror movie (“The Bloodmaster”) — a gory flick that traumatizes him and the class far more than anything else happening onscreen.

13: The Musical
Rated PG. Running time: 1 hour 31 minutes. Watch on Netflix.

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