Sammi Cohen never had a bat mitzvah of their own. "I backed out. I went to Hebrew school, but as a kid, I was very shy and scared to participate in the world." Instead, they would double up on their Jewish rites of passage years later. "I went on Birthright and did my bat mitzvah in Israel," Cohen says. "Technically, it was a b'nai mitzvah — when multiple people have a shared ceremony. Or more recently, it's for gender non-conforming kids. If you're they/them, you do a b'nai." As it were, that ultimately suited them best anyway.
Around the time that Cohen was calling off their bat mitzvah (the theme for the party would have been "sports and movies"), they were coming of age in another way: Realizing their dream was to become a director. Cohen made their directorial debut with last year's queer high school rom-com, Crush, and their follow-up is Netflix's You Are So Not Invited to My Bat Mitzvah, which follows BFFs Stacy Friedman (Sunny Sandler) and Lydia Rodriguez Katz (Samantha Lorraine) as they navigate middle school drama, Hebrew school crushes, and a friendship fallout that threatens the bat mitzvahs of their dreams.
The project hails from Adam Sandler, who is one of the movie's producers, and stars his entire family: His youngest daughter, 14-year-old Sunny, stars as Stacy, while 17-year-old Sadie Sandler plays her older sister, Ronnie. Sandler himself plays their dad, Danny Friedman, while his real-life wife, Jackie Sandler, co-stars as Lydia's mom, Gabi. (Idina Menzel plays Sandler's on-screen wife, Bree.) For Cohen, the movie they made together is something of a mitzvah — that is, a good deed — considering there are few, if any, movies that exist about Jewish girls coming of age. "There's nothing like it," says the director. "It's that feeling of going, This has to exist... And it doesn't!"
But now that it does, "The thing that's happening is everyone's sharing their own stories. And I'm like, 'That is the best part of making movies,'" Cohen exclaims. "It makes us share and connect."
A.frame: Between Crush and now this, it feels like you're making the movies that you never had as a queer, Jewish kid. How much has that been a conscious choice for you?
I think very much so. I'm making movies that I wish I had growing up, because it would have been so important to me. And a lot of my favorite movies made me feel seen, or made me feel more connected to myself and helped me feel my feelings. So, I think with Crush, I made a movie for the gays and for the Little Sammies, and then with Bat Mitzvah, I was so excited to make a movie for Jewish kids, because I think it's important that we see ourselves on-screen. And I definitely brought a little bit of my queerness to it. Also, I think both movies speak to universal feelings and emotions we all have. It's really a way to bring people together. But it definitely would have helped me as a kid to have these.
How did this make its way to you? Sandler was already a producer on it by that point, yes?
Sandler is the one that reached out. He had seen Crush, and he was looking for a young, Jewish director who could relate to the story, the experience, the kids. He's really a master at putting the right people and pieces together. I credit him for all that.
What were some of your earliest ideas of what you wanted to do with this as a movie? Because it is so unprecedented, and you've made something that is so unapologetically Jewish, and also that is somehow authentic to both nostalgic millennials and Gen Z.
I think it's this larger idea of learning about who you are and who you want to be. It's so specifically a Jewish experience when you're coming of age, but it's also a universal experience. Everyone understands what it feels like to be 13. Adolescence is this exciting roller coaster, but all of a sudden, your stomach will drop and you're like, 'I'm going to die.' We all know what those highs and lows feel like. So, I think I was just excited to tell a very specific story, and to make Jews feel celebrated, and like the cool kids, and like we get to celebrate ourselves and what we experience. But also, the movie opens with that montage where it's like, everyone around the world has their version of this. That's what really gets me excited as a filmmaker. It's using a specific lens to speak to these human things we all can relate to. It's a way to bring us together and not pull us apart.
It's that old saying: The more specific, the more universal.
Sandler obviously had experience bringing Hanukkah to the big screen in Eight Crazy Nights. Did he have his own ideas of what he wanted to see in the movie?
In the early talks before we went into making the movie, I think it was really important to be mindful and authentic when it came to representing Jewish people and our traditions and our culture. And there was this sense of, we really wanted to illustrate how warm and inviting and colorful the world is, and how fun it is! Being Jewish is about coming together. It's about family, community, eating, dancing. It's also a very forgiving, loving space. At its heart, I think there's this idea of, we all make mistakes. We're human beings. It's about the choices you make after, and it's what you do after the mistakes. There's really a lot of beautiful life lessons wrapped up in there. We were excited about bringing all that to screen.
Was the Sandler family already signed on and in place when you came aboard? Or was casting the entire family something you decided on together?
Sunny and Sadie were attached and always involved, and then we started to round out from there. Ultimately, Adam was the best choice for Danny Friedman, and we built the cast of kids and the rest of the family around Sunny and Sadie.
Oh! I would have assumed Sandler was always in place, and everyone else came after him. But he wasn't even necessarily going to be in it?
No. Like I said, he just knows how to put the pieces together in the right order. And from the get-go, it was this movie about a young girl and her best friend going through this big, Jewish coming-of-age moment. All the other pieces made sense, but it was really in support of Stacy Friedman and that story.
We're used to actor couples working together, and less frequently, a family member or two. But you almost never hear about the whole family co-starring in one movie. What was it like managing the real-life relationships with the actor relationships and coming in as a director to bring this fictional family to life?
It was quite lovely. It's a little surreal, because I felt like the Sandlers just immediately made me part of the family. I hate to say this, but it's also like, Jews just love to take you in, and feed you, and hug you, and make you feel safe. But even the girls, it's astounding — they're professionals. They're able to have this beautiful, natural chemistry, and I think it lent itself to the heart [of the movie] and the chemistry you see on-screen. It was fun. I got to know them as a family.
And then, everyone had space to do their own thing. Adam really entrusted me and the girls and gave everyone space to show up and do what they do best. But there was also support when you needed it. I think it was this coming-of-age moment for the whole family, and it was really cool to watch. I've learned a ton from Sandler. He's a genius. But the biggest thing for me is that success isn't making movies, it's making movies with people you love. And the experience of making a film, I think, really makes its way into the DNA of that story when you're watching it. I don't know if I'll ever experience anything like it. It was so uniquely surreal.
And then you have Sandler and Idina as an on-screen couple again, after Uncut Gems. Whose idea was that?
Sandler loved working with her on Uncut Gems. In talking about the Friedmans, she was a natural fit. Again, he feels like this sweet, goofy, Jewish dad we all want, know, and love. And she's talented — we knew she would do great with the part — but there's also this sense of this sweet, warm, Jewish mom. And authentic casting was important to us, and she really just fit as part of the family. It was organic, and as soon as he brought it up, I was like, 'Oh yeah, that totally makes sense!' So, this is the happy side to their Uncut Gems marriage.
Sandler has made so many movies and found all these people that he loves and loves to work with, and you got to capitalize on that and you ended up loving them too. That's the dream.
I know. I keep saying it's surreal. I guess we can just really lean in, because this is the best.
By John Boone