BY SEAN EGAN | The premise this new dark comedy — an examination of the daily life of young women soldiers working in a military office — is so ripe with narrative possibilities, it’s astounding it hasn’t been used until now. Director Talya Lavie manages to create a supremely confident, highly moving and entertaining first feature. Everything works so well you’re left wishing she’d return to that world again.
The plot centers on a group of young Israeli women in their late-teens and early-20s carrying out their mandatory military service by working in a records office, as they attempt to stave off boredom, and, perhaps, grow. The movie’s split into distinct chapters, to take closer look at three characters: Zohar, a bitter records clerk, whose only goals in life are to master Minesweeper and be as insubordinate as possible; Daffi, her best friend who dreams of transferring to the cosmopolitan Tel Aviv base; and their commanding officer, Rama, who’s tough as nails in order to carve a career out in the male-dominated military.
Israeli military movie has wicked humor and moving drama
Pulling from her own firsthand experience in the Israeli military, Lavie establishes a world that feels deeply lived in, but is never inaccessible. Basing the bulk of the action in an office building allows even a foreign audience an easy entry point, and produces some of the best humor from white-collar ennui this side of “The Office” or “Office Space.” The script (also penned by Lavie) carefully establishes multi-faceted characters that are very sympathetic and relatable. Their stories are touching, without ever becoming overly sentimental or cloying. It helps that everything is tempered by a wicked streak of dark humor, as well as surprising moments of moving drama. Lavie’s direction is very assured, and has sense of vibrancy and life to it — and a lightness of touch that lets things go down easier without sanding down its rougher emotional and darker, dramatic edges.
And make no mistake, things do get fairly dark. In addition to dealing with the expected sexual politics the premise suggests, Lavie and her characters also confront depression, suicide, rape and alienation — all while living within an apathetic bureaucratic system. Lavie and company aren’t afraid to look into the bleakest of situations and manage to find both humor and pathos. The two work in a complimentary fashion with the moments of darkness grounding the comedic escapades in a reality with serious consequences, and the comedy helping the characters (and the audience) cope with reality. It’s a difficult balancing act, but one that makes watching the movie all the more rewarding.
The cast is also uniformly stellar, and the film allows them each ample time to shine. Dana Ivgy, as Zohar, raises looking disenfranchised into an art form, yet expresses her hurt and insecurities just as well. Nelly Tagar, as Daffi, is high-strung and constantly on the verge of snapping (to hilarious effect), but also convincingly sells her character’s transformation from slacker to leader. And Shani Klein, as Rama, takes the stereotypical authority figure role and turns it into something altogether more vulnerable and unique.
With her debut feature, Talya Lavie has already established herself as a distinctive and original voice, a master of tone and a talented director. These skills all help make “Zero Motivation” refreshing, hilarious and touching — something special that shouldn’t be missed.