Sometimes when the stars are in alignment interesting patterns emerge unbidden.
Consider, for example, the coincidence by which two new films about dysfunctional Jewish families, one Israeli, the other Canadian, open here on Friday, April 28. Each film is directed by a young man at the outset of his film career, and each is an outsider in their adopted culture. The results, however, vary rather widely.
“One Week and a Day” is a first feature from Asaph Polonsky, a Washington, D.C.-born Israeli 30-something. He certainly has started his feature career with a bang; the film won a Critic’s Week prize at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, and it is definitely praiseworthy.
The film is a deft black comedy about a middle-aged couple, Eyal (Shai Avivi) and Vicky (Evgenia Dodina), who have just completed the shiva period for their 25-year-old son who died of cancer. Over the next 24 hours, Polonsky explores the disparate manner in which each of them continues to mourn while throwing them into conflict with their next-door neighbors and former friends, the Zoolers.
Avivi is often called the “Israeli Larry David,” and his response to loss is what you might expect given that label. Eyal is brusque when not downright rude, a man who never self-censors and is oblivious to the reaction of others. His social skills are, to say the least, rudimentary at best. He goes to the hospice in which his son died looking for a blanket left behind and comes away with a large bag of medicinal marijuana. By contrast, Vicky, a grade-school teacher, tries to resume her daily routine, planning a pop quiz for your students and returning to work the very next day. She finds, to her dismay, a substitute teacher in her class. Unlike her husband, she seethes inwardly and at the very least goes through the motions of politesse, but her pain and anger are barely concealed.
Into this potentially volatile situation, Polonsky drops the young Zooler (Tomer Kapon), a goofy stoner. After a hilarious montage in which Eyal demonstrates a remarkable series of variations on how not to roll a joint, he reluctantly inveigles the kid into doing it for him. Despite Eyal’s over-the-top rudeness and brutal candor, the two bond and gradually lead each other through a fast-forward maturing process.
Although the film’s structure is a little ramshackle (as befits a stoner comedy, I guess), the end result is totally satisfying, bleakly funny and emotionally resonant.
Whatever the conventional wisdom, it is hard to imagine Larry David pulling off the subtle and poignant transformation that Shai Avivi manages brilliantly in the film. It is equally unlikely that David would achieve the remarkably nuanced shift in tone that Polonsky pulls off with a maturity beyond his years and filmmaking experience. Although the film’s structure is a little ramshackle (as befits a stoner comedy, I guess), the end result is totally satisfying, bleakly funny and emotionally resonant.
Unlike Polonsky, David Bezmozgis is something of a known quantity. “Natasha,” his new film, is his second feature, albeit his first in six years, during which time he has published numerous short stories and a couple of novels to great and justified acclaim. The film is his own adaptation of the title story from his first collection, which is based, in turn, on his experiences as a Jewish émigré to Canada from Latvia. As a writer, Bezmozgis is a fascinating variation on the dominant MFA-school style of recent North American short stories — elliptical, suggestive, understated and a bit studied. He brings the same qualities to his filmmaking, not always to his advantage.
Mark (Alex Ozerov from “The Americans” cable series among others) is a 16-year-old Latvian Jew now living in the suburbs of Toronto with his parents, alternately mingling with their extended family circle of fellow transplants and his high school classmates. It’s the summer and he has strenuously avoided work, to his father’s dismay, but has a lucrative sideline shuttling marijuana for an older friend who is a dealer.
Into this comfortable if awkward idyll Bezmozgis thrusts an entirely too street-smart 14-year-old girl, Natasha (Sasha K. Gordon in a star-making turn), Mark’s new cousin by marriage. Thrown together when Mark’s mom insists he make her assimilation his summer job, the two bond slowly but steadily, with the entirely predictable erotic consequences. When the truth comes out, everything in Mark’s life seemingly falls apart yet, as Bezmozgis quietly suggests, the young man is securely anchored in a middle-class traditional home and will eventually land on his feet.
Bezmozgis tells his story primarily through long close-ups of Ozerov’s expressive features. The film exists very much in Mark’s reactions and ends with a smart coup du cinema suggesting that Mark remains something of an outsider and passive observer of his own life, in short, a born writer. But for all the intelligence and care with which the film is structured, there is something a bit too detached, too muted about “Natasha.” For all its bland surfaces (and brilliantly observed production design), the emotional churning present seems too damped down for the material. The result is a film that is thoughtful but chilly, more reflections (literally) than direct experience.
“One Week and a Day” opens Friday, April 28 at the Angelika Film Center, 18 W. Houston St., angelikafilmcenter.com.
“Natasha” opens Friday, April 28 at the Lincoln Plaza Cinemas (62nd Street and Broadway). The director and lead actors will be present for Q&A sessions after the screenings on the first weekend.