“13: The Musical,” a spunky crowd-pleaser under pressure to put on an explosive bar mitzvah, opens with young Manhattanite Evan Goldman (Eli Golden) raging at his parents’ ultimate fault. They divorced, forcing the boy and his mother (Debra Messing) to move their life — and his impending party — to his grandmother’s (Rhea Perlman) home in Walkerton, Ind., a town so small their arrival triples its Jewish population. Nonetheless, the eighth grader is determined to pack his dance floor, even if it means dabbling as a love advisor to the school’s most popular kids (JD McCrary and Lindsey Blackwell) and getting away from it all. his first friends (Gabriella Uhl and Jonathan Lengel) when he discovers that they are morons.
In short, Evan worries that his religion will make him an outsider, especially since a classmate, a terrifically funny shallow snit played by Frankie McNellis, warns fellow students that bar mitzvahs are “where they get you.” make people talk backwards and everyone is circumcised.” But once the film ticks off the expected city-vs-country reproaches about bagels (none), cows (too many) and unnerving rural silence (“How can you sleep with all this quiet!”), director Tamra Davis aims to sell the film’s young audience on an inclusive vision of America that quickly quells apprehensions of anti-Semitism, as well as most other teenage anxieties. Screenwriter Robert Horn not only improves the book’s bullying subplots of his 2008 Broadway musical (which he co-wrote with Dan Elish) until Evan no longer has to hit a footballer in the nose – he made the tensions so subterranean that some of the dramatic plot points barely make sense.
Still, Davis is a veteran at showcasing young singing talent. (Her previous credits include Britney Spears’ vehicle “Crossroads,” cult hip-hop comedy “CB4,” and Hanson’s music video for “MMMBop.”) She and cinematographer Adam Santelli transform the setting into a diorama of shoebox for the dynamic actors, who belt and dance while looking directly at the camera. Although each frame is as bright and colorful as a new box of crayons, the kids themselves never seem contrived, thanks in part to Jamal Sims’ naturalistic yet crisp choreography, which emphasizes stomping, inclines and long strides.
The songs, by Jason Robert Brown, aren’t bad either, including a bluesy number sung by the football team (“Bad News”), a scathing rock ballad backed by a marching band (“Opportunity”) and a short story for – the screen, finger-snapping charmer where Evan tricks his classmates into sneaking into an R-rated horror flick (“The Bloodmaster”) – a gory flick that traumatizes him and the class, much more than everything that happens on the screen.
13: The Musical
Rated PG. Duration: 1h31. To watch on Netflix.