The teen death drama has been done and redone so many times that it’s practically an algorithm. The most rewarding aspect of “Asia” is the way it acknowledges those boundaries without playing into clichés. A modest, intimate mother-daughter drama with one of the most wrenching finales in recent memory, writer-director Ruthy Pribar’s first feature scrutinizes the psychological processes of a young woman coming to terms with her short life, and what happens when others project their own expectations onto that scenario. Before you can say “The Fault in Our Stars,” Pribar’s subtle movie eschews sentimentalism for a patient and inquisitive character study, mining familiar territory and rejuvenating it with emotional impact that worms its way into the material from unexpected places.
Much of its power comes from a hypnotizing performance by Shira Haas, most recently seen as the young Hasidic community escapee on Netflix’s riveting “Unorthodox,” here playing another forlorn woman incapable of meshing with ordinary life. In this case, that conundrum has no discernible solution.
As scrawny, saucer-eyed 17-year-old Vika, Haas plays a woman already coming to terms with death before her story begins, and not quite sure how to reconcile that experience with normal rebellious impulses. Suffering from a degenerative motor disease that could accelerate at any moment, Vika attempts to indulge in the usual rebellious teen antics, hanging around with pot-smoking skater punks and eying the prospects of losing her virginity. But after one hard-partying antic lands her in the hospital and an attempted sexual encounter leaves her conflicted, it’s clear that Vika knows she can’t simply settle into the ordinary routines experienced by her peers.
Meanwhile, her mother struggles from her own case of denial. Asia (Alena Yiv), a 35-year-old single woman who immigrated with Vika to Israel from Russia years ago, works long hours as nurse while keeping her daughter at arm’s length. From the outset, the dynamic between the two women registers an unusual, icy tension: Asia seems to resent the burden of parenting a problem child whose days are numbered, seeking her own escape in fleeting trysts with a fellow nurse and late night drinking sessions.
When it becomes clear that Vika’s condition has worsened, Asia initially projects her own experiences onto her daughter, even dragging her out to the bar for an ill-advised double date. Together, the two women initially have the chemistry of estranged sisters, and it’s only once Vika opens herself up to maternal instincts that their bond begins to deepen in the right direction. When Asia confesses to her daughter that “the only thing I ever got from a man was you,” they start advancing toward a more profound connection, just in time for Vika to become wheelchair-bound.
That’s when “Asia” enters more intriguing territory. Shot with the nervous energy of a Dardenne brothers movie, the movie resists the temptation of a somber tearjerker as Vika winds up stuck at home, and her mother contends with the sudden need to support her daughter however she can. Yiv brings a commanding gravitas to the older woman as she works through her understanding of her daughter’s needs through her own filter, at first by trying to find her some measure of a romantic release before realizing that Vika herself has moved on from the idea, and doesn’t need to endure the traditional coming-of-age beats to find her way to adulthood.
“Asia” never quite launches beyond the basic dynamic between these two women, and occasionally feels as if it’s circling back on the same basic observations about their uneasy chemistry. However, the movie evades the potential cliches of a simple pity party; Vika undergoes a rapid maturation process that forces her to figure out what she actually wants for herself, rather than accepting what others assume she needs. This revelation unfolds in stirring moments where Haas’ nuanced gaze takes hold of the story, complicating its focus more than any dialogue could do. That sets the stage for the final act of love in the movie’s jolting finale, as terror transforms into courage and the idea of experiencing death up close becomes a survival story itself.
“Asia” was scheduled to premiere in International Competition at the 2020 Tribeca Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.