In the barren expanse of a Levant desert, the only comforts are friendship and petty office hijinks. The first near-totally apolitical film in recent memory to be set in Israel’s military, Zero Motivation instead uses its army backdrop as a vector for feminist-minded shenanigans. That’s the other major part of this film’s unusual focus—just as most Israeli military movies circle back to the conflict with Palestine, most are soaked in testosterone. But this film is about women. In fact, it only passes a reverse Bechdel Test on the basis of a single homophobic joke told between two officers. The Israeli love child of Ghost World and Stripes, Zero Motivation is one of the most welcome surprises of late 2014.
Zohar (Dana Ivgy) and Daffi (Nelly Tagar) are comrades in slumped arms at a remote IDF human resources office in the desert. Though Israel is one of the few countries to conscript women along with men, that doesn’t mean they’re given equal treatment. Women are relegated to more or less demeaning support staff—Zohar has the official title of “Mail-Handling Officer,” while Daffi is the “Paper-Shredding Officer.” They approach such listless work with an equal degree of listlessness. But while Zohar is content to slack and play pranks to pass her two years of service, Daffi hopes to transfer to the livelier streets of Tel Aviv, a difference in approach that drives a wedge between the two friends. Three separate stories within the main narrative tell of their growing apart, estrangement and eventual steps toward reconciliation.
Zero Motivation’s sense of humor is as dry as the Arava sands. The wry, sulking defiance that Zohar, Daffi and their cohorts display against their more serious superiors, such as the ever-frustrated Rama (Shani Klein), is rebellion in the finest slacker tradition. Director Talya Levie and her always on-point cast even manage to make various permutations of sitting around and playing Minesweeper funny.
Shunted into pointless paper-pushing by a patriarchal system, these young women press on as normally as they can (the middle story concerns Zohar doggedly trying to lose her virginity). But there’s a slow escalation to the resentment—backtalk evolves into epic paper-shredding antics and a staple gun battle that’s shot and edited better than most contemporary movie gunfights. As the best feminist films remind us, women will not remain in stasis under ridiculous circumstances indefinitely. By the time Rama reads a Kafka quote at her own discharge party, it is impossible to tell if she’s being purposefully ironic.
Which isn’t to say that the movie is just harmless fun. There are dark edges to oppression, of course. A gruesome suicide and a harrowing near-rape both factor into the plot. Levie’s script and direction gamely handle the tonal swerves—the melancholy sharpens the comedy, and vice versa. And the overall effect strengthens the conviction of the film’s messages.
Ivgy and Tagar make a delightful team; the former’s boredom-fueled trickstering spirit bounces off the latter’s manically singular focus. They’re backed by a terrific supporting cast. Klein shades sympathetic layers into Rama’s officiousness, which is shaped by her desire to climb a ladder that doesn’t want her on it because of her sex. And Heli Twito, Tamara Klingon, Yonit Tobi and Meytal Gal all make distinctive turns as various coworkers, each with her own quirks.
Zero Motivation is funny, droll and poignant in all the right measures. As Levie’s first feature, it’s a strong announcement of her creative voice. In a world of military movies fixated on stereotypical dudeness, it’s also a potent, refreshing change of pace.
Director: Talya Levie
Writer: Talya Levie
Starring: Dana Ivgy, Nelly Tagar, Shani Klein
Release Date: Dec. 5, 2014