ZERO MOTIVATION Review: An Earnest And Hilarious Look At Life In The IDF

VyceVictus loved Talya Lavie's unlikely army comedy. 

One of my favorite things about movies is how they can make a foreign subject relatable and understandable to the common viewing audience. I also enjoy how you can experience a person or group of people's particular perspective and find common ground. I try to do this in my writing, reframing military culture and the quote-unquote black experience for others who might find difficulty comprehending it. As well, movies that have been able to strike familiar chords through completely different perspectives usually resonate very strongly with me, particularly ones about the the young female coming of age.

With all this in mind, I am over the moon about Talya Lavie's Zero Motivation, a recent film festival darling I just saw that is worthy of all the praise it's garnered.

Zero Motivation is the story of a group of young female enlisted soldiers and their young superior officer who comprise the Administrative/Personnel section in a remote Israeli Defense Force outpost. One might expect right off the bat that a movie about the tribulations of female soldiers in one of the toughest fighting forces on earth in one of the most dangerous places on the planet would be a super serious, gritty tear jerker. However, while there are certainly some tense moments and serious situations, Zero Motivation is a laugh out loud, sharp and uproarious comedy with a solid sense of heart. In fact, the movie at times leans more towards surrealism and movie fantasy logic than toward being overly concerned with stolid realism and by the regs military authenticity; It's definitely more Stripes than MASH, to be certain. There are a lot of rules being broken and plenty of disorderly conduct that, in the real world, would get a soldier locked up, kicked out or potentially even beat down. However, despite the trappings, the movie plays closer to a small scale romantic comedy, so the conflicts all serve more as vehicles to character development than to serve as chronicles of war.

Still, what's truly impressive is how the film manages to remain resoundingly earnest when it comes to the day-to-day mind-crushing minutiae of being a pencil pushing POG. To a young private just out of boot camp, away from home for the first time with a bunch of angry people in a hostile work environment, an office might be as intimating as a foxhole on the front line. And any soldier stuck with office-mates they can't stand run by a leader they hate in a building from which they can't escape knows just how excruciating the nine-to-five grind of a “cushy desk job” can really be. Zero Motivation also chooses to deal with issues about sexism more matter-of-factly than through grandstanding, and addressing the issue on a personal, intimate level makes the acknowledgement more effective. The higher up combat guys don't think much of the girls not because they are girls, but because they are slumming it behind desks and making the coffee, just like any other dirty leg. Yet they also have to deal with the additional headache of the superior officers checking out their asses as they walk by. Just your typical everyday office bullshit in the middle of a combat zone.

What helps balance the tonal curves of the movie are the outstanding performances by the leading ladies. Daffi, played by Nelly Tagar, is an enthusiastic and naively optimistic admin clerk, who is slowly but surely beginning to unravel due to her time spent at the outpost. She dreams of being stationed in a super-cushy office job in Tel-Aviv, and is becoming increasingly desperate to escape the confines of the washed-out emptiness that is almost literally Bumfuck, Egypt. Her best friend at the outpost is the irascible yet laidback Zohar, played by Dana Ivgy. Zohar is the archetypal Army Slacker, skilled and intelligent, but far too interested in her own trivial pursuits (like maintaining her Minesweeper high score) than promoting the interests of the greater good. She has the take-no-shit attitude of a fearless leader, but couldn't possibly give less of a shit about her mandatory service. Despite her bristle, we see a tenderness and vulnerability revealed throughout the film as she deals with conflict with her best friend, a long-standing personal struggle that haunts her, and the escalating conflict between subordinate and superior. Rounding out the cast is Lieutenant Rama, played by Shani Klein. Rama has the unenviable task of managing the lackluster admin section and the contentious Zohar, while trying to impress the Garrison commander in order to gain favor and advance her career. Rama is definitely motivated and driven, but lacks the interpersonal savvy and charisma of a good leader, which in turns leads to infuriating (for her) and hilarious (for us) situations that she must attempt to keep under control. Despite her moments of comedic ineptitude typical of the screaming clueless LT archetype, the film successfully humanizes Rama as the film concludes, as we see that behind the brass is an insecure but passionate young woman who is inspired by famous women in history to do her best and serve her nation with pride and honor.

It might go without saying, but I haven't seen any of the previous works of these actresses, but it was clear to me that I was seeing some classic leading lady superstar work on screen. You know, that kind of special something that draws you in: Julia Roberts' toothy grin or that Sandra Bullock girl/MILF next door affability. But there's also something of Oprah's subtle ferocity, or Nicole Kidman's vulnerable complexity. In no uncertain terms, I fell in love with the ladies onscreen. I don't feel ashamed about it, but I do recognize a certain uncomfortable and possibly problematic element to that. Women in the service have enough problems being objectified, and it does no good to approach the issue on the opposite end of the spectrum by placing them on a pedestal. Moreover, I am moderately aware that the women of the IDF, though particularly unique for being the premier example of how women in combat capacity can work, are also subject to a...certain fetishization. Still, the actors onscreen provided enough of that movie magic to captivate their audience, while giving real warmth and sincerity to the characters and situations being portrayed, which ultimately gives the movie its real power and honors the real-life beautiful and powerful women in uniform the world over - like those with whom I have had the privilege of serving.

While many other movie-goers this week are bemoaning the loss of the chance to see a reportedly smart subversive comedy due to fear, I was lamenting the fact that no one else would be able to see this fine film because its release schedule was at an end. How pleased was I then when I found out that Zero Motivation has extended its theatrical run in my city due to popular demand. If you are in the NYC/Tri-State area, you can see the movie up through Christmas Eve at the Film Forum on West Houston street. Apparently this film is also playing in a couple of other cities, though in extremely limited capacity, so if at all possible, I highly recommend you take the trip to check it out. If any of you have also been fortunate enough to have seen it, let us know what you thought of it in the comments. And just the same, if any of y'all are in NYC through this holiday season/New Year's, holler at me on Twitter so I can buy you a beer and we can argue about movies. Peace.