A Price Above Rubies is the story of Sonia Horowitz (Jerry Maguire's Renee Zellweger), a young Orthodox Jewish woman who has just given birth to her first child. Dissatisfied with her marriage, and with the restrictive laws of her community, Sonia accepts her brother-in-law's (Christopher Eccleston) offer to become a buyer in his jewelry business-the job will afford her a small measure of freedom. Although Sonia knows there will be a price to pay, she isn't expecting what happens when she arrives for her first day of work: Her brother-in-law pushes her up against a wall and forces himself inside of her. Sonia doesn't quit; she accepts the terms, and takes her first defiant step toward freedom.

Like Fresh, filmmaker Boaz Yakin's first feature, A Price Above Rubies is about the price we pay for consciousness and for self-realization. Just as the young black boy in Fresh knows he must relinquish his former life-literally, in fact, when he enters a witness-protection program-in order to escape, Sonia realizes that when she walks away from her Orthodox community, she gains her own identity, but she loses her friends and family, everything she was raised to honor and protect.

Fresh and A Price Above Rubies are not the stories of classic heroes who engender change, or who move people toward a greater consciousness-Sonia and Fresh only gain the freedom to be themselves. They're young people on the verge of life, facing their first important conflict. They give birth to their identities, and in each film we leave them at the very moment they've gained it. If Fresh is a harsh look at the life of a young black boy in urban America, A Price Above Rubies spares nothing in its portrayal of the plight of women in Orthodox Jewish communities. In each film, Yakin exposes the small but shocking details that push his heroes over the edge. In A Price Above Rubies, Sonia's lack of sexual gratification-there's no foreplay, and sex is treated as a marital obligation-is no less a force in her individuation than her frustration at not being able to work in the jewelry business for which she possesses a great talent. While that kind of psychological insight allows an audience to understand the protagonist, a director must also be able to eternalize the hero's internal conflict for the screen. In A Price Above Rubies, Yakin cleverly introduces elements of magic realism in an otherwise starkly real, modern allegory.

Sonia often confides in her ten-year-old brother Yossi (Shelton Dane), who drowned when they were children but who is still very much a part of Sonia's life; he appears when Sonia is unhappy or when she's facing a decision. Yossi is Sonia's younger self, always there to remind her that she must satisfy her desire to have her own life. An old woman also appears to Sonia, a kind of spirit guide; she provides Sonia with a place to stay when she's locked out of her home. The old woman is an incarnation of the woman in the story that Yossi tells Sonia at the beginning of the film-not unlike Sonia, that woman defied Jewish law. The presence of the old woman and Yossi are delightful touches of magic realism-they represent the internal forces that compel Sonia to pursue her journey toward self-realization.

Yakin's screenplay is practically flawless; the only time it gives you pause is when Sonia ends up sleeping with Ramon (Allen Payne), a talented designer-it happens too casually and too quickly. At first, Yakin's Orthodox Jewish community seems unique in its misogyny, until you realize that it is the birthplace of the modern Judeo-Christian belief system which informs all of Western culture. Sonia is Everywoman, and her struggle is universal. Zellweger's performance makes it just that; she captures the demeanor and speech of an Orthodox woman, but also the vulnerability, self-doubt, and unrelenting courage in the face of neglect and even violence, that makes Sonia very much like every other woman who's breaking through patriarchal boundaries.

A Price Above Rubies is a film filled with stuffy interiors-there's the Horowitzs' tiny apartment, the community's overcrowded temple, and Ramon's cluttered workspace. People seem to be squeezed into spaces too small for them, and often the sheer number of people is a menacing presence for Sonia. This beautifully wrought, skillfully rendered and brilliantly acted film is about the tremendous struggle to retain the self in a world stuffed with animate and inanimate distractions, and with people whose misery and unhappiness threaten to engulf the spirits of those around them. This isn't like the story of Norma Rae, who silenced the machines, or Clarice Starling, who ended the life of a serial killer; this is about plain, ordinary Sonia Horowitz, who manages to heal herself of the worst wound patriarchy has inflicted on women-never again will anyone convince Sonia Horowitz that she's worthless.

--Maria Garcia