To some members of his religious community outside Philadelphia, Lior Liebling, a bright 13-year-old with Down Syndrome, is considered a rebbe, a Jewish leader whose devotion to davening (praying) speaks to a close relationship with God. It's easy to see how this spiritual savant, with his ecstatic davening and singing, could inspire the people around him, but Ilana Trachtman's intimate, moving documentary Praying With Lior takes care not to anoint him as a vessel for God's word. Lior is a special boy, but the film remains refreshingly down-to-earth about his abilities and limitations, and in the four-month buildup to his bar mitzvah, it wonders openly about where this rite of passage might take him. What will his life be like at 16? 20? 35?
Ultimately, Praying With Lior is a film more about family dynamics than spiritual ones, though the two can't really be separated in the Liebling household. Born to two rabbis, Mordecai and Devorah, Lior grew up with religion at the center of his life, so it's only natural that his love for his family would find expression in his relationship with God. Devorah died of breast cancer six years before the film opens, but she made such a profound imprint on him that his prayers seem as much a communiqué to her as to God. Though his stepmother seems up for the challenge, the film picks up on a slight hint of discord as the family—which includes a college-aged sister, an older brother, a younger sister, and another brother who doesn't appear in the film—continues to function without Devorah. But there's mostly joy as Lior approaches his bar mitzvah with unabashed enthusiasm, and his siblings, parents, and community rally around him.
Trachtman pursued the project after encountering Lior at a religious gathering in the Catskills, and Praying With Lior occasionally goes soft in trying to inspire when it might have plumbed deeper into the Lieblings' complex family dynamic. It doesn't help that the jaunty score—which is a little like klezmer music written for acoustic guitar—puts a cute gloss on material that might have been more profound. Yet the film gains in power as the big day approaches, perhaps because Trachtman grew closer to the Lieblings as the shooting went on, or more likely because she was present to witness extraordinary scenes like the one where Lior's father takes him to visit his mother's grave. A fictional film could never replicate their raw grief, and it says everything about the heart of a family that has embraced Lior as a singular blessing.