What seems like a light-hearted comedy about a man preserved in pickle brine for 100 years is actually one of the most heartfelt and poignant films produced in the last ten years. Don’t go anywhere, this isn’t a joke: Brandon Trost’s An American Pickle tells a dark and difficult story that is the lived reality for millions of people.
An American Pickle follows the life of Herschel Greenbaum, a Jewish man who emigrates to the United States from Eastern Europe with his beloved wife Sarah after their village was destroyed by Cossacks in 1919. Herschel and his wife are devout and humble people, and the bleak circumstances in their village have led them to have humble dreams – Herschel dreams of tasting seltzer water, and Sarah dreams of having her own burial plot. They believe that they can make these dreams come true when they go to America, but their reality in Brooklyn isn’t much better than it was back in their village.
Herschel works in a pickle factory and smashes rats around the vats. Despite his difficult and very comical work, he manages to save just enough money to buy Sarah the burial plot she’d always dreamed of. They were expecting their first child when the rats at the pickle factory corner Herschel and chase him into a vat, where he is sealed as the factory is shut down.
100 years later, some kids lose a drone in the abandoned pickle factory, and Herschel is released. He is studied and analyzed, and eventually finds out that he has only one living descendent – Ben Greenbaum. At first, Ben and Herschel get along very well – Herschel believes that Ben, a struggling app developer, is actually very successful (largely because he has a SodaStream). However, in a string of events that involve alleged Cossacks and a very real arrest, Herschel and Ben fall out.
They begin a wickedly funny feud. Herschel sets out to create his own pickle company using people’s garbage. Ben has him shut down by the health department. Herschel restarts, Ben has him shut down. At one point Herschel is even cancelled on Twitter, and Ben ends up being deported back to their family’s village in Europe. None of that really matters. It’s funny, but it’s not really important.
The meat of the film, behind the witty dialogue and the on-brand Seth Rogen humour, has to do with why Ben and Herschel fought. Herschel’s promise to his wife when they came to America was that their family would grow to become important and successful. When he realized Ben wasn’t what he had initially dreamed, he condemned his great-grandson as a failure, and worse – a coward. Herschel was the literal embodiment of what it means to come from a family of immigrants.
Herschel was the ghost of Ben’s family. Even though Ben was third-generation American, he had internalized the idea that he had to be successful and carry on his family legacy in a big way. Though Herschel took the length of the film to realize that Ben was honouring their family in his own way, Ben had based his entire identity on trying to further their family legacy through his work. There’s trauma there.
The pressure to succeed is at the basis of so much of the intergenerational trauma that comes with being from an immigrant family. The constant pressure to do nothing but study, to have a “good” career like medicine or law, to marry well, to fit in but still honour your culture. This intersection of assimilation and retention of culture is so complex, and is a part of identity that becomes more and more complicated as families change. An American Pickle handled this so beautifully with Ben’s relationship with his faith. The healing that goes on throughout the film, culminating with Herschel finding Ben in their village synagogue taking part in the mourner’s Kaddish, is piercingly emotional.
An American Pickle is easily discounted as a comedy. It’s easily discounted as a story about the American Dream. But it’s more than that. Trost’s film (and Simon Rich’s New Yorker short story, “Sell Out,” on which it was based) is a love letter to the dreams of immigrant families everywhere, and the complex legacy that those dreams leave behind. Not everyone has a great-great-grandfather who was brined for 100 years to tell them that they have in fact lived up to the hopes and aspirations that were held for them. But when Herschel Greenbaum told his great-great-grandson that he was proud of what he’d accomplished? It felt like he was speaking to me.
An American Pickle is now streaming on CraveTV: https://www.crave.ca/en/movies/an-american-pickle