Sammi Cohen – who cares deeply about authenticity and giving teens fun, entertaining and diverse representation – was the perfect choice to direct You Are So Not Invited to My Bat Mitzvah, the Adam Sandler-produced Netflix movie about a chaotic Jewish coming-of-age.
You Are So Not Invited to My Bat Mitzvah is also wonderfully Jewish – with Hebrew lines, a larger-than-life rabbi played by Sarah Sherman, a maybe too quirky Israeli DJ, a bunch of chutzpadik older Jewish ladies and, perhaps most delightfully, a beautiful nuclear Jewish family in the Friedmans, played by Adam Sandler, Idina Menzel and Sadie and Sunny Sandler.
Both deep and casual Jewishness is intrinsic to Cohen’s identity. In the middle of our conversation, they suddenly disappear from Zoom due to a power outage. When they come back, I tell them I was just about to ask about their dream b’nei mitzvah theme.
“Then panic ensued? How neurotic and Jewish of me!” they respond, before answering the question.
Q:If Adam Sandler asked me to direct a bat mitzvah movie, that would be the highlight of my career. I don’t think you can go higher than that. What was that like?
I mean, yeah, it’s a dream come true. It’s a little surreal, and it took a while to sink in. I grew up loving Billy Madison and loving [Sandler]. It has nothing to do with him being Jewish. He’s just an icon. So yeah, it’s all been very surreal and amazing. And maybe the highlight of my life. It’s all downhill from here.
Q: “Nepo babies” and children of famous actors have a certain reputation – what was it like working with [Sandler’s daughters]? And what was it like having their parents be on set?
Nepotism aside, they’re both so good and so dedicated and want to do what they do. They’re just really passionate. We worked a ton, just me and them, in rehearsals beforehand, really digging into their characters. They worked so hard. They’re really skilled, and they put in the time and effort.
As far as having their parents on set, it was a beautiful thing. The Sandlers not only made me a part of the family, but everyone had space to do their own thing – and then there was support when they needed it. You get this really natural chemistry when you work with the Sandlers that makes it all feel like slice of life.
Right before this, I spent a lot of time getting to know the Sandlers and I went to Sunny’s actual bat mitzvah. It was this big coming-of-age moment for the family. And then that went right into filming the movie. So it felt like this continuation of Sunny’s coming of age. Sadie was turning 16 – that’s another big moment. And then, in real life, Adam and Jackie were watching their kids become adults. That we got to do that in the real world and in this movie world was so beautifully poetic.
Q: Adam is also known for being this kind of subversive, very foul-mouthed comedian. There’s still a little bit of that element in the movie, but there’s something so soft about him in here.
He still has his very goofy moments, and you still see the dad jokes that feel so authentic to Jewish parents – they just feel like our collective Jewish mum and dad. But I think what was really fun was to see Adam in this role that’s earnest and grounded and felt just very real. This sweet, goofy Jewish dad, who’s still struggling with having to let go of this younger version of his kid. That scene where he gets mad, and they have that confrontation in the bedroom – there’s some real tense moments, but it’s still so full of love.
And then there are moments of levity. One of my favourite scenes is in the car when he fake spills the coffee on her. That was a sweet little improvised moment not in the script. We found that in rehearsal, and I was like, that’s such a real thing my dad would do.
Q: And then Sarah Sherman was so great as the rabbi.
What’s funny is that when we were scouting our location, the rabbi – that was his actual treadmill. He had a walking treadmill under his desk, and we went, “This is too good!” It felt so right for her character. It allowed her to be Sarah Sherman, if that makes sense, but still within the world that we’re creating.
I grew up with a female rabbi, so in my mind, I was like, “Oh, we have to have a female rabbi.” And obviously, this is very much Reform and a really progressive look at Judaism. The Sandlers have a queer female rabbi and I was like, that’s really cool. It’s not representative of every version of the [Jewish] experience, but it was definitely important to me and I think it’s hopefully just going to normalise that for more people.
Q: What went into making sure that everything was Jewishly accurate?
We really wanted to be careful and represent things authentically and check ourselves. So we had a lead rabbi that was consulting, and then a couple of other rabbis that we would send everything to.
Q: How important is authentic casting to you?
It’s important. It was a discussion for this movie. I don’t think it’s necessary, exclusively. There are a lot of kids in [the film]; we wanted to represent the sort of diverse Jewish population that we’re seeing in real life. And so you see that on screen. I think we have about 80 per cent [Jewish actors].
That said, I think for our protagonist, for our family – I think it’s important, and I think it does make a difference. A part of it is just the way we speak and carry ourselves. I think there’s something to be said about casting authentically, when it’s so tied to the story and who these people are, but it’s a controversial topic. Some people go, “No, what’s best for the movie?” And I agree, but I think those two things go hand in hand and work together. Kveller
This interview has been edited and condensed.