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Teachable moments

by David Lamble

Teachable moments

Justin Long, the handsome, boyish actor previously known for comic teen fare, TV computer ads, the early 2000s NBC comedy "Ed" and director Sam Raimi's "Drag Me to Hell," provides a comic turn as an embattled Manhattan college professor in "Safe Spaces." Long's Josh is an articulate, aging preppie who takes on the forces of political correctness in director Daniel Schechter's witty social comedy that had the Castro Theatre rocking with laughter at this year's San Francisco Jewish Film Festival.

Josh's grandma is dying in the hospital. Josh is going out of his way to convince Dad (Richard Schiff) to visit her, though his relationship with her over the last years has been strained. Grandma is Mom's mom, and the parents are divorced.

Another cross Josh bears in this socially charged moment is Generation Z's dismissal of him as a member of a virtual "over-the-hill" gang: a white, straight, cisgender male. Josh presents what he hopes will be a spontaneous teachable moment for his freshman Social Ethics class, only to find the forces of political correctness after his head. This social satire shows why free speech is so hard to defend when young people have scant info on old First Amendment battles. "Safe Spaces" reminds us that the pursuit of social "safety nets" can be an entertaining if volatile ride for characters with a propensity for wagging fingers at family members and imperfect strangers alike.

Dividing lines

Israeli filmmaker Avi Nesher's "The Other Story" is a multilayered, soap-opera-style drama that explores just how interesting Israel's "Wild East" neighborhood can be. Unfolding in today's Jerusalem, the film offers the seldom-told tale of rising tensions between secular and religious folks in a nation whose political birth-pangs date back three-quarters of a century.

It's a deliberately paced film that treads deeply into themes dividing secular and religious Jews, to say nothing of the fast-growing Palestinian minority. If you pay attention you'll receive a dramatized explanation of the meaning of terms like "hazara betshuva" ("returning to the faith"), which describes many Israelis after their country's victory over invading Arab armies in the 1967 war. In practice, "hazara betshuva" results in formerly secular people adopting the religious practices of the Orthodox.

A young woman trades her parents' secular life for the spell of a young, charismatic rabbi — a young man, it turns out, with a troubled past. A veteran Israeli cast includes the 23-year-old rising star Joy Rieger; screen vet Maya Dagan, previously seen by American audiences in director Nesher's 2014 "The Matchmaker"; and Sasson Gabai, whom many Bay Area film buffs may recall for his fine work in 2007's "The Band's Visit." In Hebrew and English, with English subtitles.

(Both films open Friday.)

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