History can teach us many lessons, but people often aren’t willing to hear them. That’s only become truer in recent years as the possibility to disseminate misinformation has grown easier, and the creation of falsified “evidence” is rampant. Many children grow up with the stories of their parents and grandparents to guide them about what can happen, but others don’t have positive role models or those who have experienced the same things. Tiger Within charts the unexpected collision of two individuals whose universes couldn’t be any more different.
Casey (Margot Josefsohn) is a miserable teenager whose relationship with her mother Marge (Erica Piccininni) is overshadowed by her latest abusive live-in boyfriend. After a particularly brutal argument, Casey boards a train from her small Ohio hometown to Los Angeles, where she is supposed to live with her father and his new family. When she overhears them talking negatively about her, she opts to strike out on her own. She soon encounters Samuel (Ed Asner), an elderly Holocaust survivor who treats her to a meal and begins to open her eyes to something other than the hate and resentment that fuels her daily life.
One of the inciting moments of this unlikely relationship comes from Samuel’s response to two Jewish men wearing yarmulkes and prayer shawls who shout Casey down after noticing the emblem on her jacket. The swastika was painted on earlier in the film at a party by others seemingly without Casey’s knowledge, but once she sees it, she clarifies to Samuel that it doesn’t mean that she hates Jews, just “f**k you!” The conversation doesn’t stop there, with Casey doubling down on her ignorance by trying to correct Samuel’s reference to the Holocaust, explaining that it was just a war and that a perfectly normal and unremarkable number of Jews died, hardly the inconceivably large figure of six million regularly discussed.
Tiger Within engages with important and unsettling ideas by presenting a story that purposely doesn’t feel anchored in the present. Casey must rely on Samuel’s words and take them at face value just like she did with the person who instilled her Holocaust denial – her mother – rather than looking up any sort of documentation online. Samuel also doesn’t push her to talk about it, focusing instead on her own path into massage parlor sex work and how she feels about herself. For someone who has been through a great deal in his long life, he brings a tremendous amount of patience to this new mentorship role. He’s also capable of kindness and understanding, telling Casey during their first meeting that there’s no such thing as greed when it comes to hunger, something he knows all too well from his own experience.
Though this film’s message is meant to be uplifting and positive, its content is definitely dark. The colors and camera angles used highlight the loneliness and anger Casey feels, and how she perceives little light in the world. While Samuel is in a good place, he too encounters negative elements in his daily life far more deliberately sinister than Casey. It can be seen as a harsh indictment of the real world, where not everyone gets a happy ending and circumstances may be beyond a person’s control, even if they seem like they’re headed in the right direction.
This film is notable as the final performance from Asner, who died at age ninety-one just under two years ago. The feted star of The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Lou Grant was working diligently right up until his death, with a number of projects released posthumously, and he brings a lived-in gravitas to his turn as Samuel here. Josefsohn makes an impressive feature film debut at just fourteen years old, imbuing Casey with a weightiness that makes the character believable. Tiger Within employs a number of cinematic devices throughout its 98-minute runtime, utilizing art and animal metaphors to enhance the message of truly discovering oneself, which doesn’t always happen at the right time or without effort.
Tiger Within opens in select theatres and on VOD on Friday, July 7th.