Praying with Lior is, ostensibly, a documentary about one very special, very religious young man with Down syndrome. Yet despite its heavy focus on the role of faith in Philadelphia native Lior's Leibling's life, Ilana Trachtman's non-fiction portrait of the 12-year-old boy during the months leading up to his much-awaited Bar Mitzvah is far less interested in sermonizing or converting disbelievers as it is in showing organized religion and family to be similar social systems of inclusion. Which is not, however, to say that this heartfelt film is a one-note sunshiny tale, since director Trachtman has the good sense to observe Lior and those around him with equal measures of effusive empathy and journalistic inquisitiveness, capturing not only Lior's vociferous piousness but also the complex familial dynamics that surround him. Refusing to pigeonhole or preach, it touches upon numerous points of interest - the difficulties of raising special-needs children, the emotional support supplied by religious rites of passage and everyday customs, the selflessness of parents and siblings - and, in doing so, provides a complex, compelling depiction of the intrinsic relationship between love for God and one's kin.
As home movies and excerpts from an article reveal, Lior's mother Devorah was his bedrock. Succumbing to breast cancer in 1997 when he was just six, her legacy is his enthusiastic davening (traditional Jewish prayer), which is so sincere and infectious that it leads many to label him a "spiritual genius," the type of overreaching label that Lior's protective rabbi father Mordecai is quick to shun. Whether Lior's godliness is born from a true link to the divine or, as his godmother suggests, is perhaps simply the result of having been brought up by a mom and dad who were rabbis, is a question the film neither confirms nor refutes because it's beside the point. In interviews, Lior refuses to expound upon his association with the Almighty, a reticence that may speak to the private nature of his communion or merely childish shyness, which also manifests itself when Lior is pressed to explain what a Bar Mitzvah is to a shoe salesman. Praying with Lior is admirably non-judgmental, and consequently offers a clear view of its subjects' world, from the beaming kindness that characterizes Lior himself, to the simultaneous affection and jealousy that Lior's younger sister Anna feels for her attention-grabbing brother.
Trachtman's camera glimpses Lior at home, in a school for the mentally challenged, and in prayer sessions, creating a sense of intimacy enhanced by moments spent with his loved ones. Lior's 16-year-old brother Yoni admits that he'll likely never attend a distant college or reside anywhere other than the East Coast, so staunch is his love for his brother, though a dueling sense of burdensome responsibility can be felt in both Yoni and 19-year-old sister Reema's comments about the surrogate parental role they assume in Lior's life. Meanwhile, Lior plays Little League baseball at the urging of his father, who both yearns for his son to experience the same things that other kids his age do, as well as fears that, as he becomes a teenager, Lior will sense the differences between himself and his peers and, as a result, become further alienated and lonely. As Reema wonders, how do you tell someone like Lior that he'll never be able to drive or attend college, especially when he may not even be capable of understanding the reasons why?
Such issues are handled with deftness and grace by Praying with Lior, which compassionately addresses the Liebling clan's complicated situation - including the social challenges Lior faces on the playground, and the role of Lior's stepmother Lynne in their lives - without ever losing sight of the fundamental, rousing loyalty and love that defines their relationships with each other. Lior weeps at the grave of his mom, struggles to come up with his Bar Mitzvah speech with Mordecai, enthusiastically plays his Playstation but takes care to interrupt his game in order to help straighten out Yoni's prom night tux, and joyously giggles as he mimics the gestures of his older brother in grainy home movies. The bond between fathers and sons, brothers and sisters, and man with God are all of a piece in Trachtman's stirring film, and thus it is that - as conveyed by his climactic rendition of "Salaam Alaikum" - Lior's ardent dedication to the traditional tenets of Judaism ultimately seem like nothing so much as a way of maintaining a profound, everlasting connection with his dearly departed mother.