A barely perceptible atmosphere of dread hangs over the Israeli film “Close to Home.” Co-written and directed by Dalia Hager and Vidi Bilu, the film has an intimate, almost slight feel to it, and features two young protagonists who are mostly concerned with the rather banal business of early adulthood. That these young women also happen to be performing their compulsory military service, patrolling Jerusalem and registering Arabs on the street, is almost incidental – until they are, on just a few occasions, directly confronted with the threat of violence, though it always lingers just outside Hager and Bilu’s handheld frame. In “Close to Home,” the emotional preoccupations of late female adolescence don’t square easily with the experience of being a soldier in contemporary Israel, where an unattended bag on a bus could likely to belong to a forgetful passenger as to portend impending terror, and it’s the sensitive, subtle depiction of this incongruity that gives this lovely film such an unexpectedly fresh point of view.
Smadar (Smadar Sayar) is a rebellious and somewhat abrasive presence whose disaffection clashes with the meek, deferential temperament of her new partner, Mirit (Naama Schnedar). Each day, the girls are assigned to a street or region, with sparse half hour breaks to eat, smoke, and shop. Smadar is quick to bend the rules, though, to step out on the clock to get her hair done while an anxious, disapproving Mirit patrols on her own. Though neither girl admits it at first, Smadar could benefit from Mirit’s stable, responsible influence, while Mirit needs someone like Smadar to draw her out. If their pairing follows a mismatched buddy-picture formula, though, there’s nothing glib about the way the relationship is depicted. Bilu and Hager display sensitivity and empathy in their writing, and they do a wonderful job playing the mundane and obvious emotional conflict between the girls against the film’s fraught setting and broader context.
The filmmakers go to great lengths to emphasize the femininity of all of the women soldiers – they knit and shop and date and desire – and the sense of soldierly camaraderie that emerges is a welcome feminine counterpoint to the masculine iteration we’re more familiar with. Where men are concerned, though, Hager and Bilu tend to overemphasize their characters’ womanly lust, a preoccupation that sends the film off track in its second half. Romantic subplots, though minor, distract from more central relationships, and at least two of the women make the somewhat unconvincing and unmotivated decision to abandon their respective posts to pursue men. Hager and Bilu recover by bringing their emotional focus back to the unlikely friendship between Smadar and Mirit, a tenuous, fleeting calm surrounded by an engulfing storm.
[Chris Wisniewski is a Reverse Shot staff writer, and is a regular contributor to Publishers Weekly.]