Truth, tears, and staple-gun battles: San Francisco Jewish Film Festival's female-centric films
Women are also front and center in a number of SFJFF's stronger narrative entries. Writer-director Talya Lavie won Best Narrative Feature and the Nora Ephron Prize at Tribeca for Zero Motivation, a pitch-black comedy about female frenemies jammed into close quarters while doin' time in the Israeli Defense Forces. Most movies prefer to show soldiers in combat, and Zero Motivation does just that — if "combat" means fighting to avoid boring admin work, to achieve the highest score at Minesweeper, to fuck up the most extravagantly, or with staple guns. "There's a war going on — get a grip!" a superior officer reminds self-centered slacker Daffi (Nelly Tager), and that's more or less the only current-affairs statement uttered in a film that's mostly concerned with the agonizing task of achieving responsible young adulthood.
Another coming-of-age tale unfolds in Hanna's Journey, director and co-writer Julia von Heinz's drama about a Berlin business-school student (Karoline Schuch) whose résumé is lacking in the sort of warm-fuzzy community service that'll elevate her in the cutthroat job market. Her estranged mother, who works with a German group placing volunteers in Israel, proves unexpectedly helpful, and Hanna is soon winging her way to work with developmentally disabled adults in Tel Aviv, leaving her sleek wardrobe and yuppie boyfriend behind.
Hanna's Journey has all the potential to be a pat story about a German woman coming to terms not just with her own life choices, but with complicated family history (hint: it involves World War II) only a trip to Israel can unearth. There's also a conveniently hunky Israeli (Doron Amit) in the mix. But! Schuch, who resembles Jessica Chastain, brings authenticity to a character who morphs from superficial to soulful in what might otherwise seem like too-rapid time. She also benefits from a subtle, nicely detailed script, which avoids stereotypes and oversimplification, and is not without moments of wicked humor ("German girls are easy — it's the guilt complex!")
Less successful at achieving subtelty is For a Woman, writer-director Diane Kurys' latest autobiographical drama. Here, she explores her parents' troubled marriage, inspired by a photograph of an uncle nobody in the family wanted to discuss. The fictionalized version begins as Kurys stand-in Anne (Sylvie Testud) and older sister Tania (Julie Ferrier) have just buried their mother, who was long-divorced from the girls' ailing father.
For a Woman takes place mostly in flashbacks to post-war Lyon, where young Jewish couple Léna (Mélanie Thierry) and Michel (Benoit Magimel) settle and have Tania soon after. Russia-born Michel is a devoted Communist, and he's overjoyed — yet understandably suspicious — when long-lost brother Jean (Nicolas Duvauchelle) suddenly appears in France, having somehow escaped the USSR. Michel's political paranoia blinds him to the fact that Léna — who married him to escape a death camp (he didn't know her, but couldn't resist her icy blond beauty) — is bored with her stay-at-home-mom life, and has taken an unwholesome interest in his mysterious little bro.
There's more to the story than that, of course, but For a Woman never goes much deeper than a made-for-TV melodrama: entertaining in the moment, but ultimately forgettable. And even gorgeous period details (Michel's car is to die for) can't make up for a frame story that feels rather wan next to the film's cloak-and-dagger main plotline. 2
SAN FRANCISCO JEWISH FILM FESTIVAL
July 24-Aug. 10, most shows $10-$14
Various Bay Area venues