This year’s Tribeca Film Festival included three new films from Israel, a continuation of the nation’s seeming gold rush of quality filmmaking. One of those films, “S#x Acts,” has its theatrical debut in town Friday, Dec. 6. It is deeply troubling and more than little problematic.
In its opening credits, “S#x Acts” gives its title in English. The bleak little pun (“sex acts,” get it?) should serve as something of a warning about what follows. The film, which is lean and compressed, follows a 16-year-old girl, Gili (Sivan Levy) through a half dozen encounters with some of her high school classmates. She is a painfully insecure young woman who has recently transferred to a new school in order to advance her social standing. Her insecurity plays itself out in those six acts (in both senses of the word) in which she ends up in a sexual situation with classmates. There is a rapid escalation in the intensity and intimidation from the film’s first scene to a finale of astonishingly powerful sleaziness.
Directed by Jonathan Gurfinkel from an original screenplay by Rona Segal, the film hits all the clichés of the teen sex drama, with Gili the victim of rumor-mongering, covert videotaping and the general disapproval of the other, hipper and more affluent girls. When a series of crushes leads either nowhere or to furtive and unappealing sex, she shifts allegiance repeatedly, but to no avail. When the object of her main hook-up tries to hand her off to his bar mitzvah age brother, the film has gone as far as it can — or is willing to — go.
This is a hermetically sealed world of heavy-drinking and heavy-drugging teens living seemingly aimless lives in an atmosphere of pointless privilege. Almost all of the film takes place at night, most of it in public spaces lit by garish combinations of sodium streetlamps and neon. Gurfinkel chooses to shoot the entire film with a handheld camera, which simultaneously gives it a certain immediacy while suggesting a world in which there is no moral center — a world quite unsteady on its feet, much like Gili herself.
What results is a sort of queasy car crash between “Alice Adams” and the smarmy faux kiddie-porn of Larry Clark. In interviews, Gurfinkel has said that because Gili is a (barely) willing participant in much of the action, the issues of consent and force become a gray area, that “S#x Acts” is a film “without a victim.” Ironically, the skill of his lead actress reveals that statement to be a lie. Levy is tiny, smaller than every male predator who seeks her, smaller even than her female classmates who offer her little protection. Levy’s performance renders Gili as a bundle of frayed nerve endings whose bravado is even less convincing than Gurfinkel’s claims. (There is also the little matter of how much someone who is only 16 and intoxicated is capable of giving her consent to having sex.) Gili is a crushed blossom, such a painfully needy and incomplete figure that it is impossible to see her as anything but a victim, and almost as hard to see “S#x Acts” as anything but a callous act of voyeurism.
In a recent talk on the rise of Israeli film, I noted that one of the signs of normalization in the country’s arts scene is the fact that the omnipresent conflict between Israelis and Palestinians has been replaced by more ordinary concerns in the forefront of films made there. Of course this has long been true of the country’s literature and visual arts. On some level the existence of a film like “S#x Acts” is another positive sign. Or you could read it as an extended, very covert allegory on appropriation and bullying. Either way, it is a well-crafted but singularly unpleasant work. n
“S#x Acts,” directed by Jonathan Gurfinkel, opens Friday, Dec. 6 at the Cinema Village (22 E. 12th St.). For information, call (212) 924-3363 or go to www.cinemavillage.com. The film is also available in video-on-demand format from local cable providers.