Chassid straddles the dark side

A young Chassid boards a subway train in his Brooklyn neighborhood, snatches off his yarmulke and emerges in the sex-and-drugs scene of a Manhattan dance club.

With his first feature film, Israeli-born writer/director Adam Vardy catches — if not exactly the Golden Globe — the brass ring. “Mendy” is a well-made, moving, often funny coming-of-age story that, like its title character, straddles two very different worlds. It screens Wednesday, Jan. 28, under the auspices of the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival.

The protagonist (a brooding Ivan Sandomire) drops out of his tight-knit Orthodox community, drawn by repressed sexual urges and a wish to experience a wider world, but ill-equipped to cope with what he finds.

The one thing he does have is a friend. And nobody is better equipped to help Mendy taste forbidden fruit than his bad-boy cousin Yankel (played with gusto by San Francisco native Spencer Chandler).

Yankel lives a life of bars, strip clubs, Ecstasy and a different babe every night. He supports himself with a little dealing and the occasional run to Israel to smuggle in a shipment of “diamonds,” aka Ecstasy. (Mendy, with his authentic Chassid looks, is soon tapped by the boss to take over the route.) Yet Yankel still considers himself religious. His tattoos and body piercing don’t get in the way of laying tefillin.

At first, Mendy does not understand the dichotomy, and his first bites of the worldly apple leave a bitter taste in his mouth. He still longs for a spiritual life but cannot accept the restrictions of his former community. Neither can he accept the license of his new surroundings. Panicked and confused, he tries to return home but is warned away by a fellow yeshiva student. He calls his grandfather, who hangs up. He has no choice but to go back to Yankel.

Besides, there is beautiful Bianca (Gabriela Dias), Yankel’s roommate, a Brazilian dancer who tends bar to pay the rent and studies choreography to feed her soul. One look at her cooking in her underwear and Mendy is a goner.

Their unlikely love story is at the heart of the film. It may be Yankel who teaches his cousin about sex and drugs, but it is Bianca who teaches him about other things like kindness and art.

When Mendy rebelliously wolfs down a cheeseburger and loses it, it is Bianca who cleans him up. She doesn’t hold herself cheap, and violently rejects his clumsy attempts at sex. (When Mendy finally does lose his virginity, courtesy of someone else, he races to the mikvah to cleanse himself.)

Will Mendy and Bianca make it as a couple? Vardy and his co-author Tsvi Schnitzler — himself a former Chassid — don’t tell you. Perhaps, as Yankel notes: “You can’t dance at two weddings.” Maybe not, but Mendy seems determined to try.

Mendy” runs 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 28, in the screening room at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, 701 Mission at Howard, S.F. Tickets: $7; $6 for students, seniors and Yerba Buena Center members. Information: (415) 978-2787.