Films about mopey, misanthropic teenagers attempting to flee the quotidian plod of their domestic lives are dime a dozen in contemporary cinema, but it’s out of the frying pan and into the fire for Daffi (Nelly Tagar) and Zohar (Dana Ivgy), the teenage slackers of Talya Lavie’s Zero Motivation. A deadpan Israeli comedy set in the human resources office of a remote military base, the film unfurls across three vignettes, each linked by the hormonal and hierarchal interplay between the site’s female ranks.
The girls’ binary uselessness and mutual disdain for their assignment has joined them at the hip, and now, as Daffi dreams of Tel Aviv but avoids every responsibility which could get her there, and Zohar squanders her days trying to beat the high score on Minesweeper, they have become just another obstacle to Commanding Officer Rama’s (Shani Kelin) pursuit of higher rank. Her office, cluttered with decade’s-old paperwork and miserable teenagers, is the most ineffective on base, and she is frequently chagrined by her indolent troops, and subsequently looked down upon by her male peers (not all of whom are rank superiors).
While its locale and politics are foreign, the specificity of Zero Motivation’s milieu shouldn’t belie a universality about the drudgery of office life, and Lavie’s primary influence seems to have been Mike Judge’s endearing cult classic Office Space (1999). This is a film for anyone whose youthful dreams were once quashed by the daily sight of filing cabinets, and a late-film Kafka quotation will strike chords with audience members in Israel and London alike; “the chains that bind mankind are made of office paperwork.”
In the first vignette, new girl Tehlia (Yonit Tobi) creates tensions between Daffi and Zohar, but turns out to have a secret which could disrupt the entire base. Beautifully measured, her story is where the film’s depth of character and environment, and its drily absurd humour really blend into a gripping, consistent tonality. The next two segments – about Zohar’s pursuit of sex (I’m definitely the only virgin on my kibbutz“); and Daffi’s accidental rise up the military ranks – don’t balance the elements with as much success, but each are firmly planted in the same emotional and socio-political context, which ensures the film’s fluidity and stability as a whole.
Lavie’s masterstroke as writer-director is to create three microcosms which engage beyond their political context, and while each vignette is about a principal issue – rape culture and misogyny in the military; abused authority – the scenes are as individually carefully crafted as their overarching concept or theme, and on a beat-by-beat basis Zero Motivation has the best laughs of the festival.
One of several Israeli films in the LFF – Shira Geffen’s Self Made, which examines separatism and female identity from both sides of the Israel-Palestine border, is another great female tale to look out for – Zero Motivation is further evidence of a rich filmmaking culture unrepresented in the UK’s current distribution climate. Lavie’s film, which captures the despondency and longing of teenage life better than most films in recent memory, and finds a sense of melancholy to balance out the story’s cruel structural revelations, is one of the treats at this year’s festival, and the fact that it’s still looking for a buyer is a bleak scenario considering the dubious fact that it’s playing outside of the First Feature Competition.
Witty, moving, and very well acted by its young cast (Dana Ivgy fires off her bitter zingers better than any smart-aleck twentysomething delivering the same schtick in current US indies), Zero Motivation may be easy to overlook in the programme, but you shouldn’t miss the chance to see it while that possibly scant opportunity is in town.
Director: Talya Lavie
Writer: Talya Lavie
Stars: Dana Ivgy, Nelly Tagar, Shani Klein
Runtime: 100 min
Country: Israel, France