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.