‘Zero Motivation’ Review: Dark Israeli Comedy, Who Knew?

'Zero Motivation'

Movie Rating:

3.5

A prize winner from the Tribeca Film Festival, Talya Lavie’s ‘Zero Motivation’ is practically bursting at the seams with barbed humor, moving observations and workplace satire. This tale of several young girls coming of age while serving the mandatory time in the Israeli army plays like a bizarre combination of ‘M*A*S*H’ and ‘Ghost World’ (with a little ‘Office Space’ sprinkled in for good measure). The film is a stirring debut for a bright young writer/director who just might have a bleak comedy masterpiece in her once she develops her skills.

The story unfolds on an Israeli army base populated entirely with young female soldiers. It’s telling that Lavie’s brilliant little script never overtly comments on the political implications of the setting. The mere fact that all these girls are forced to be there and don’t seem particularly interested in the war or combat is enough to cover the political commentary. Instead, the focus is on two friends, Zohar (Dana Ivgy) and Daffi (Nelly Tagar), whose primary concern is to make it out of their mandatory two-year service without falling asleep. Their “service” essentially consists of paperwork and enforced sit-ups, so there’s plenty of time to form friendships and attempt to enjoy some of that wayward youth thing. A new arrival (Yonit Tobi) sends Daffi into a paranoid spiral that she might lose her job, which is enough to kick the narrative into motion. From there, the film is defined by paper-shredding, in-fighting, sexual coming-of-age, unexpected tragedy and plenty of awkward laughs.

The film is split into three overlapping shorts. The first story covers the bureaucratic awkwardness covered above and peaks with an unexpected act of violence. The second revolves around Zohar’s determination to lose her virginity while coping with a charmingly psychotic Russian “friend” (Tamara Klingon), and flows through a series of genuinely nutty plot twists that culminate in an attempted rape and gunpoint trashcan humping. The final story wraps things up with comeuppance and a staple gun battle.

Throughout it all, Lavie’s script remains on-point and her humor is razor sharp. At the film’s harshest moments, Lavie satirically attacks this dull, bureaucratic military world and the subjugated role her protagonists are forced to play within it. At its warmest (and often saddest) moments, it’s a sensitive study of the peculiarities and ever-shifting nature of female friendship. Most of the time, Zohar is merely playing off the lengths we’ll all go to avoid boredom in our dull lives, with the military setting offering a unique backdrop. At all times, the movie is quite funny without ever stretching too far out of the realm of believability. The performances of the entire cast are remarkable.

As a filmmaker, Talya Lavie’s greatest gift is her use of tone. She walks the line between melancholy and comedy that so many indie filmmakers tread with a mastery far beyond her experience. Unfortunately, she falters as a storyteller. Though ‘Zero Motivation’ is episodic by design, it never quite comes together in a satisfying way. The movie feels more like a series of short films with a shared location than a feature, and that’s never more evident than in the hastily compiled finale.

Lavie clearly has a way to go as a writer, but given that this is only her first feature, such problems are entirely excusable. As imperfect as ‘Zero Motivation’ might be, it serves up a comedic voice so distinct and intriguing that it remains a pleasure. It’s safe to say that you won’t see another movie this year quite like it.

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