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Movie Review: Molly's Pilgrim
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2005 blog


Movie Review
Molly's Pilgrim
, could she also
guide a boy moving cross country?,  Feb. 20, 2005

memoirs file   movies

Reviewed by Donald H. Harrison

It's not a new movie, but its recent showing at a children's matinee of the San Diego Jewish Film Festival was a wise choice because it has a message that is timeless. Molly's Pilgrim tells the story of a Russian Jewish girl, Masha, who takes the name Molly in the hope of fitting in with her new elementary school classmates in America. But she is so different in so many  ways that she becomes a target for teasing, especially by Elizabeth, a beautiful, self-centered girl who instinctively feels  threatened by Molly's presence at the school. 

Everything about Molly is ridiculed—the kerchief she wears over her head, the grammatical mistakes she makes in English, and the napkin she tucks into her collar to prevent the food she brings from home from spilling on her dress.

In a gym class, Elizabeth performs some nearly perfect cartwheels but on the last rotation falls awkwardly to the mat. Molly,  next in line, does the cartwheel exercise with the grace of a trained gymnast, winning applause from some members of her class which only deepens Elizabeth's enmity. Elizabeth sneers to her friends that her father has told her that's what Russians do. Outside, skipping rope with her friends, Elizabeth does not invite Molly to join her group, but instead chases her away, calling her a "big nose."

The movie takes place in a November, perhaps in the mid 1980s. As the class is reading aloud about the first Thanksgiving, Molly inquires about the meaning of the holiday. The teacher refers Molly to the text, which tells how the Pilgrims came to the New World in pursuit of religious freedom. The children are given the assignment of fashioning Thanksgiving dolls.  Molly works hard on hers at home, but doesn't finish before bedtime Her seamstress mother, learning that Pilgrims were people seeking religious freedom, tells Molly she will finish the doll. The next morning Molly is mortified; the doll is wearing a Russian costume, just like the one she wears in a photograph that had been taken with her friends back in Russia.

The climax of the short movie is when Molly reluctantly shows her doll to the class, with Elizabeth, of course, leading the jeering. The teacher says perhaps Molly did not understand; she was supposed to have made a "Pilgrim." Molly, quaking, tells the teacher her mother told her that her own family were 'Pilgrims'—because "in Russia, it's very hard to be Jewish" and her father, her mother, and she all came to America seeking religious freedom.

The teacher at last understands, and to Elizabeth's consternation so too do many of the children in the class, especially Jenny, a little African-American girl who sits in the front row. The teacher tells the class something that very few Americans know, that the first Thanksgiving was modeled by the Bible-loving Pilgrims after the Jewish holiday of Succot. Molly at last can skip happily home, a broad smile on her face. And when it is time for a class picture, she and Jenny give each other the hug of true friends, as Elizabeth looks on with discomfort.

The story was written by Barbara Cohen, who appears twice in the movie as a crossing-guard who takes such an interest in Molly that she has to be honked at by traffic waiting for her to clear the crosswalk. Molly is played touchingly by Sophia Eliazova and kudos go to Andrea Lawn who plays the nasty Elizabeth convincingly, Adelle Summers for her portrayal of Jenny, and Judy Yerby as the kind teacher.

The importance of Molly's Pilgrim, of course, is in the avenues of discussion that it opens. "Why do children make fun of each other?" "How important are differences?" "What can we learn from other people's ways?" Following the festival, I watched the Ohana Foundation/ Phoenix Films  educational movie in DVD format with my wife Nancy; with Patricia Meredith, a neighbor who is an elementary school teacher; and with Patricia's daughter, Melissa, a first-grader. Melissa, a little blonde whose beauty other girls someday will envy, was quite moved by the presentation. "People should be nice to each other," she summarized with a little prodding from her mother, the teacher.

Nancy saw another side to the story: Molly's mother was so concerned that Molly not completely lose her Russian identity that she perhaps inadvertently set her daughter up to be a target. Being a seamstress, the mother—one assumes—observed the clothing other children wore; yet she sent Molly to school in Old World garments. Was this, as Nancy suggested, an unkindness? Patricia nodded her head in agreement. Being a teacher, she knows that the children in her class will be shaped by many experiences that happen to and from school, at recess, in the hallways, and in the cafeteria—places where children form their own society. It's best not to leave them unprepared.

My three-year-old grandson, Shor, after enjoying the animated film Enough Already! also watched  the beginning of Molly's Pilgrim at the Jewish Film Festival but decided that it was "boring"—he is more into animated learning programs like Word Factory and The Magic School Bus. Subsequently, no amount of coaxing could get him to give this film another chance, although that was my principle reason for having obtained it for home review. Soon, Shor will be traveling to a new home in Tennessee where he will be faced with fitting into a new environment and making friends all over again. 

I know that our daughter, Sandi, will do everything possible to ease his transition, but I worry that he will have to endure the same kinds of teasing that Molly did from his new peers. I had hoped that he would store Molly's Pilgrim into his memory banks and draw upon it in Tennessee. Somehow, I think he instinctively understood from the little bit of the movie he had seen that there was a parallel between the fictional Molly's situation and the one he soon will be facing—and made up his mind that he just doesn't want to deal with it now. Nancy, far wiser in the ways of children, thinks perhaps the material in the movie is still too old for him, and that, realizing this, Shor didn't want to watch it. "If he does something, he wants to master it completely," she observed.

I thank Barbara Cohen for writing the story, which became the basis of the Jeff Brown film. I hope there are crossing guards like her in Tennessee.