In his feature film directing debut, writer/director Hanan Peled has crafted the superbly acted and wonderfully written "Dear Mr. Waldman," a coming-of-age story set in 1960's Israel centered upon the story of Moishe (Rami Heuberger, "Gift From Above" and "Schindler's List"). Moishe Waldman, a married father of two boys, is a Holocaust survivor who continues grieving the loss of his first wife and son to such an extent that even his family cannot seem to escape Moishe's tragic past.
His wife Rivka (Yavgenia Dodina) lives day to day in survival mode while his eldest son, Yonatan (Roy Mayer) isolates himself in a world of books. Only his youngest son, Hilik (Ido Port) pays him any mind and Hilik himself is torn between doing whatever it takes to make his father happy and his own fears that his father will abandon him.
"Dear Mr. Waldman" works because, despite the story's obvious melodramatic potential, Peled keeps "Dear Mr. Waldman" low-key and more concerned with its elements of human drama rather than trying to balance both a social justice film with a family drama.
When Moishe reads an article announcing that a Jack Waldman has become an adviser to U.S. President John F. Kennedy, he becomes convinced that "Jack" is his long missing son, Yankele. While several persons have told Moishe that they witnessed Yankele's death in the concentration camp, Moishe continues holding out hope that he was not the only member of his family to survive.
Despite such a weighty topic, "Dear Mr. Waldman" sparkles with moments of true humanity, gentle humor, sweetness and tenderness.
While the film occasionally crosses the line into melodrama, especially when Hilik misguidedly decides to "answer" his father's letter to Mr. Waldman, overall the script's strong character development helps to keep "Dear Mr. Waldman" from ever ringing false.
As the bereaved man struggling to hold on to hope, Heuberger delights with a performance that is somewhat reminiscent of that from Benigni in "Life is Beautiful." It's a performance filled to the brim with life and desperation, hope and fantasy.
Likewise, Port is simply magnificent as the "Spartacus" loving young man torn between his own child-like needs and his remarkable love for his father. One need only learn that Port is, in fact, an adult actor portraying this young man to realize what a masterful performance it actually is.
Dodina and Mayer excel in supporting roles, while Dov Glikman is equally as convincing as Moishe's more grounded and ambitious business partner.
The young Ela Armoni shines in her screen debut as a young girl who befriends Hilik in both sweet and funny ways.
Yoni Bloch's original score adds a nice complement to the film's blend of larger than life issues with intimate family dramas, while the cinematography of Valentin Belonogov almost has a Barry Levinson quality about it that adds the perfect touches of color and black-and-white.
Filmed on location in Tel Aviv, "Dear Mr. Waldman" is in Hebrew with English subtitles. As is often the case with lower budget foreign films, one can easily find inconsistencies in the subtitle translation and it's to the credit of the fine cast that these were hardly noticeable after the film's first few minutes.
Despite its occasional dip into melodrama and a story that may ring a tad familiar, "Dear Mr. Waldman" is a hidden jewel among this year's independent cinema and a sure sign of the growth and potential of the Israeli film scene.
A beautifully paced film featuring characters you will most definitely care about, "Dear Mr. Waldman" is worth the effort to find whether that be on the film festival circuit or upon its eventual release on home video.