More often than not, the age old adage of not judging a book by its cover comes out like a rather perfect bit of advice to live by. Often times, when looking at a film you may or may not be interested in viewing, taking a gander at the film’s log line can be a real problem when attempting to judge any interest in viewing the picture. Be it a film that is far deeper than a simple boy meets girl type premise, or a high concept picture that never makes good on its seemingly interesting set up, an intriguing premise is good for very little more than selling a film in the same way a trailer does.
Take Tom Shoval’s debut feature, a new picture entitled Youth. The setup here is both relatively simple, and bewilderingly misleading. The film introduces us to two twin brothers, Yaki and Shaul, as the former happens to be home on short live from the army. Coming home to a house on the verge of implosion (what with an unemployed father and a mother overworking herself for far less than enough pay), only to team with his movie-theater-employed brother in a kidnapping that may or may not bring them and their family the money they need to survive. Now, while that film described by that plotline sounds like any run of the mill genre picture, particularly in this fiscally driven world we live in, it’s very much its own beast, one that is beautifully raw and intimate, and yet chock full of entrancing themes and discussions of everything from familial strife to generational gaps in Israel (where the film’s set), all in the body of a film that is as beautifully quiet as any genre picture could ever hope to be.
A far cry from much genre cinema where this type of kidnapping plot is common place, this tense and beautifully paced drama is both deftly thrilling and oddly moving. With the main sense of tension coming from the various issues that decide to pop their ugly faces up in this already disturbing set up, the film is very much rooted in this type of thriller cinema, but instead, paints what would be any other thriller’s villains as sympathetic, if still very much horrible, youths simply birthed in a world of violence and a time period where money is tight and unattainable for most if not the entire population. The film’s greatest attribute is writer/director Shoval, a filmmaker who is both perfectly assured in this type of muted and intimate aesthetic and how from it he can bring to life a film of many different layers. On the surface a thriller, the film, thanks to Shoval’s rather brilliant script, mixes in meditations on violence in a world where that is commonplace, familial drama, the impact of media images on youth (you see Shaul in various t-shirts promoting violent motion pictures) and while not all of it is done with the most quiet of hand (particularly the latter), it all breaths a sense of vitality into a film that could otherwise linger in nearly unwatchable torture porn that gets marked off as “genre” in today’s film landscape.
It also helps that the performances here are absolutely fantastic. Real life brothers David and Eitan Cunio play Yaki and Shaul, and are absolute revelations. Both take on different roles in their family and in their own relationship, and they are oddly kinetic and relatable members of this film’s universe. For such a negative act that they are committing, their plight is both seemingly universal and inherently sympathetic, making what follows absolutely moving to sit through. Toss in great turns by older cast members like Moshe Ivgy and Shirli Deshe as the pair’s parents, and you have a film that is ostensibly a kidnapping thriller, but becomes so very much more, until it ultimately becomes a family drama unlike any we’ve seen in quite some time. Each cast member is asked to do quite a bit of emotional heavy lifting, and they do so with a power and a grace rarely seen in modern cinema.
Overall, the debut feature from Tom Shoval is an unforgettable one. With a wonderfully dense screenplay and a beautifully reserved and intimate aesthetic with both natural photography and a static camera that draws out every bit of drama from the proceedings, Shoval’s picture is one that may be overlooked as we near the Spring movie onslaught, but it’s one that needs to be seen and discussed for what it is, one of this year’s best pictures.