Margot Josefsohn and Ed Asner in Tiger Within.
The phrase “working actor” wasn’t coined to describe Ed Asner, but it fits him to a T because, man, he worked: the one and only gap year in his entire career happened way back in 1959, and just the number of gigs he worked in his 80s would make any actor jealous. He worked all the way until his death in August 2021, leaving behind a whopping 15 posthumous projects. And yet in all the things I’ve seen him in, from starring roles to cameos to animation voiceover, he’s never phoning it in—he’s always a welcome addition whenever he shows up onscreen. It’s a delight to see an actor of Asner’s vintage still working at the top of his game in his 90s. It’s a wonder to see a 14-year-old actor faceoff against a legend of Asner’s quality in her very first film and match his dramatic skills beat for beat.
The 14-year-old in question is Margot Josefsohn who plays Casey, a punk high school dropout decked out in a black leather jacket, fishnets, piercings, and a high contrast hairdo that looks like it was styled using hedge clippers. Casey lives in a rundown house in Nowheresville, Ohio with her overwhelmed mother and her mother’s abusive boyfriend, who in no uncertain terms wants Casey out. Hoping to give her some normalcy, her mom throws Casey on a train to California to live with her dad, but when Casey discovers that her dad’s family is wealthier and WASPier but she’s just as unwanted there, she ditches them. In short order, she’s living on the streets of Los Angeles, working a job giving happy endings at a massage parlor to make ends meet.
Then one day, Samuel (Asner), an old Jewish widower and Holocaust survivor, visits his wife’s grave and on his way out of the cemetery, stumbles upon Casey sleeping on a gravestone, huddled under a black leather jacket decorated with a swastika. Something gives him pause and he waits until she awakens, and offers her a meal and a place to sleep and get cleaned up. Casey is crass, rude, and a Holocaust denier, but Samuel sees her for what she is: a girl in trouble who needs help, and since he’s an old man with nothing to live for, he decides to live for Casey. Maybe, just maybe, he can get her back on the right track.
If that all sounds a bit “afterschool special”-y, I can’t say you’re wrong, and there are certainly times when screenwriter Gina Wendkos (writer of Coyote Ugly and The Princess Diaries, writing her first theatrical film since 2005) and director Rafal Zielinski (1994 Sundance favorite Fun) make choices that amp up the melodrama. But the whole thing stays grounded thanks to the performances of Asner and Josefsohn, who are both utterly captivating. Other than the added thick Eastern European accent, Samuel plays into the same sweetspot for Asner as his character Carl Fredericksen in Up: a veneer of bitter cantankerousness that covers a broken heart just trying to do right. And Josefsohn is just a wonder: her large, expressive eyes convey so many complicated emotions—loneliness, anxiety, and fear of rejection being chief among them. Her profanity-strewn dialogue could’ve easily been delivered in a standard petulant teenage whine, but she brings real honesty and nuance in her delivery. It is mind-boggling that Josefsohn was able to deliver such a heartfelt performance at 14 with precious little previous acting experience, and I can’t wait to see what she does next.
Though it has a modern setting, there’s something very ‘90s-indie to the aesthetic of Tiger Within—it particularly brought to mind Allison Anders’ 1992 film Gas Food Lodging in its blend of melodramatic elements with an astute portrayal of young women trying to break free from the legacy of their upbringing in a poor, broken home. Zielinski incorporates a few stylistic experiments—some (the incorporation of drawings and animation by Clara Collins and Vally Mestroni as interstitial elements) work well, some (a few instances of slow-mo for dramatic effect) not so much.
But on the whole, Tiger Within succeeds because of the captivating performances of its leads, and the opportunity to see Asner at the top of his game and Josefsohn establish herself as a star to watch make it easy to heartily recommend. | Jason Green
Tiger Within is available for home viewing as part of the St. Louis Jewish Film Festival running March 6-13, 2022. Individual films are $15 to view while all-access passes for the festival are $98, and viewers must be in the state of Missouri to watch the films. For a full list of films or to purchase tickets, visit jccstl.com/arts-ideas/st-louis-jewish-film-festival/.