Joan Micklin Silver’s Hester Street (1975) is one of those movies I’m supposed to love more than I do. In fact, I don’t love it at all. Reacquainting myself with it for this showing, the best I could work up to was a middling case of liking it. I do love the picnic scene. I like Carol Kane in the movie (maybe not Oscar-level like, but I like her), and I really like the subtle way she (and the film) announce her own Americanization at the end of the divorce scene. My overall feeling, however, is that there was just too much rush to proclaim the film great in 1975—and a lot of it was predicated on simply wanting it be great because of its female director and feminist tone. There’s nothing wrong with that, except Joan Micklin Silver simply didn’t turn out to be America’s first great woman filmmaker—something that would have justified all the praise.
Hester Street perhaps just tries to do too much for its own good with its period setting (1896) and its desire to depict a fairly wide story of Jewish-immigrant assimilation during that era—on an almost nonexistent budget. The settings are often too clean looking, and are almost always too brightly (and too flatly) lit. The film’s overall look is somewhere in between an overly ambitious student film and a modestly budgeted TV drama, which is probably why the simpler, natural-light picnic scene stands out in my mind as its best sequence. The acting is often in much the same key. In fact, it’s all pretty tough sledding until Kane’s fresh-off-the-boat immigrant arrives to find her husband (Steven Keats) Americanized to the alarming degree that he’d really rather not be weighed down by his Old World, conservative Jewish wife. At that point, Hester Street starts to find its level, but can’t quite sustain it. It’s certainly a worthy attempt with several fine things in it, and it’s important as an example of women’s efforts to finally carve their own place in the world of filmmaking, but it’s just not a great movie.