Between the Temples: Nathan Silver’s strange, sweet natured comedy has echoes of Harold and Maude

A heartbroken cantor forms an unlikely friendship with his old music teacher as he plans her late-in-life bat mitzvah in an oddball comedy elevated by its endearing central performances from Jason Schwartzman and Carol Kane.

Jason Schwartzman and Carol Kane as Ben and Carla
  • Reviewed from the 2024 Sundance Film Festival

Impatient viewers might wrongly assume American indie director Nathan Silver’s oddball comedy Between the Temples to be a misfire, thanks to its bizarre pre-credit sequence establishing Ben Gottlieb (Jason Schwartzman) as a depressed forty-something with two pushy moms who are keen to get him interested in a woman, therapy, or both. But it’s worth persevering, as once those awkward introductions are out of the way, things settle into consistent hilarity.  

The bones of its plot have the makings of trite weepie. Sad Ben is a cantor at his local upstate New York synagogue, but since the death of his alcoholic novelist wife a year ago, he can’t bring himself to sing. Aside from moms Meira (Caroline Aaron) and Judith (Dolly de Leon) boss Rabbi Bruce (Robert Smigel) is supportive and kind towards Ben, even if his primary motivation is acquiring hefty donations for his temple. 

Fortunes change for Ben when, after being punched in face for mouthing off in a bar, he bumps into Carla (Carol Kane), his free-spirited primary school music teacher. When Carla insists Ben teaches her readings from the Torah so she can attain the bat mitzvah denied her 60 years previously (because her parents were Russian communists) an unlikely friendship begins to blossom. Meanwhile Rabbi Bruce aims to set Ben up with actress daughter Gabby (Madeline Weinstein), which gives the film the air of a screwball rom com set in the world of Hebrew readings and rituals. 

Schwartzman and Kane engage as the central pairing, their teacher-pupil reversal dynamic allowing both to show off their comic chops. Hangdog Ben is another of Schwartzman’s losers-you-can’t-help-but-like, and though this attacker from the bar would disagree, he’s not nearly as punchable as Max Fischer in Rushmore (1998) or Philip Friedman in Listen Up Philip (2014). Kane, memorable since her small part in Annie Hall (1977) and revelatory in Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt (2015-2020), has her best big-screen role for many years, elevating the kooky arts teacher cliché with her innate timing and energetic line readings. 

Silver and regular collaborator C. Mason Wells’s script rarely flags, teasing out delicious moments of black humour in the erotic voice messages once recorded by Ben’s dead wife and Ben’s wild reaction to Carla’s housemate serving him psychedelic tea. Scenes of fast off-kilter action, shot on 16mm by cinematographer Sean Price Williams, give proceedings a 1970s look to fit the clear reference to Harold and Maude (1971). Williams’ influence is also felt in the jagged cutting and overlapping sound design, two stylistic features of his directorial debut The Sweet East (2023) that feel right at home in Silver’s feature. It’s an enjoyable, unusual tale, summed up by Carla’s description of Ben: “A different kind of funny.”