DIVAN (Unrated, 77 minutes)
Girl meets couch in Pearl Gluck's "Divan," a charming and astute first-person documentary. Although it opens with a quick-cut montage of various sofas, this playful cinematic essay does not belong on the Shopping Channel. That's because the filmmaker, while seeking to find and purchase a fabled couch that once belonged to her great-grandfather, is really hoping to acquire such intangibles as her father's respect and some sort of truce with her own heritage. Gluck grew up as a Hasidic Jew in Borough Park in Brooklyn, N.Y. Unlike some who have fled that religious tradition, the director didn't have to stage a traumatic escape. In an event Gluck's narration terms "a miracle," her mother got divorced when her daughter was 15. Now a Manhattan-dwelling thirty-something with a support group of fellow "slipped" Hasidim, Gluck clearly has no intention of returning to the fold. Yet she pays her respects to her former life -- and her father -- by becoming a student of her people. On a Fulbright scholarship, she travels to Hungary to meet distant relatives and collect stories of their culture. And to buy a sofa. The divan in question was supposedly first blessed by a legendary rabbi in 1879. Convinced that her father wants this piece of furniture, Gluck travels through Hungary and nearby Ukraine to locate it. She does, but learns that her cousins are reluctant to either give or sell it to a near-stranger who's also a woman, an American and a lapsed Hasid. While on her quest, Gluck takes side trips to investigate matchmaking, upholstery, religious pilgrimages, the Holocaust and sex. Deftly structured by Gluck, co-writer Susan Korda and editor Zelda Greenstein, the movie juggles history, autobiography and tentative father-daughter bonding. Then, with a delightful twist ending, it enters the realm of modern myth. In the context of knowledge and esteem for what came before, "Divan" makes a compelling case for improvising your own life. Contains adult themes. At Visions Bar Noir.
-- Mark Jenkins
WITH ALL DELIBERATE SPEED (Unrated, 103 minutes)
Taking its name from a phrase in the 1954 Supreme Court decision known as Brown v. Board of Education -- a civil rights watershed whose 50th anniversary is being celebrated this year -- the documentary by Peter Gilbert ("Hoop Dreams") is nothing if not ironic. In its examination of the history of the movement to outlaw school segregation and the "separate but equal" doctrine, it takes pungent notice of the fact that we are still fighting for things we thought we had won a half century ago. That's partly because the words "with all deliberate speed," while alluding to the pace of segregation's dismantling, were interpreted by many to mean, as NAACP Chairman Julian Bond says, "with any conceivable delay." Although hampered in its presentation by an academic structure, with talking-head interviews by Vernon Jordan and others, "Deliberate" gets most of its juice from listening to groups of people who were students and activists in segregated Clarendon County, S.C., and Prince Edward County, Va., during the years leading up to the case. Interviews with today's teens, however, present more of a mixed message. While some note that there is still educational inequality, others take much of what their parents fought for for granted. This, the film hints, is not necessarily all bad. While the film means to remind us how much work is left to be done, it also suggests that it might be a wonderful thing to arrive at a day when the struggles of the past are forgotten, not because they don't matter, but because the things we struggled for are there for all to share. Contains an image of a lynching and discussion of racism and racial violence. At Landmark's E Street Cinema.
-- Michael O'Sullivan
WORD WARS (Unrated, 77 minutes)
Watching the obsessive young spelling-bee contestants of "Spellbound," audiences could remind themselves that it was just a phase the kids were going through. There's no such consolation for viewers of "Word Wars," an entertaining but somewhat creepy look at the world of competitive Scrabble. There are, of course, many more destructive pastimes than arranging tiles on a board. Still, it does seem that the Scrabblists introduced by directors Eric Chaikin and Julian Petrillo have suffered mightily for their avocation. The movie tracks four competitors, including defending champion and tai chi practitioner Joe Edley; stand-up comic Matt Graham; Baltimorean Marlon Hill, a dreadlocked, pot-smoking, unemployed Afrocentrist; and "GI" (gastrointestinal) Joel Sherman, whose stomach -- and everything else -- tends to be restive. Few women compete, although 1987 champ Rita Norr is briefly interviewed. She claims that the people who do best at Scrabble contests are "math people," not language-oriented types. Another female contestant offers an even simpler explanation: "We don't care so much." Edley, Graham, Hill and Sherman do care a great deal, as is revealed by subsequent meltdowns and prima donna behavior, particularly at the 2002 national championship in San Diego. Most people who watch the fast-paced and gimmicky "Word Wars,'' however, will probably not feel the desire to improve their Scrabble abilities. If they do, it'll likely be to boost "family play," not to join the slightly sad demimonde of competitive word wrangling. Contains profane language and adult topics of conversation. At the AFI Silver Theatre.
-- Mark Jenkins