Israeli cinema has often wrestled with the complex nature of its youth culture, and while last year’s “Synonyms” set a high bar, Etyan Fox got there much earlier. The filmmaker’s 2002 “Yossi & Jagger,” which tracked a doomed gay romance among two soldiers, dove headlong into a society steeped in tough masculinity and conservatism at odds with the sensitivity and individualism of a new generation. Fox’s 2006 “The Bubble” went one step further, probing the “forbidden love” between a pair of Israeli and Palestinian men in Tel Aviv, while 2012’s “Yossi” explored the disillusionment of the aforementioned soldier heading into middle age.
With “Sublet,” Fox continues this exploration by widening his lens, with an intimate look at the contrasting values of gay men from different generations that uses the specifics of Israeli culture to explore more universal ideas. The result is a minor-key variation on Andrew Haigh’s “Weekend,” with two men from different walks of life spending their limited time together talking through opposing values and finding out why they can’t click. The dynamic between them unfolds in subtle moments and sudden bursts of sentimentalism that threaten to simplify the drama, but its leads bring such tender detail to the story to keep their evolving dynamic engaging throughout.
It helps that they couldn’t be more different: Michael (“The Normal Heart” star John Benjamin Hickey) is a travel writer for The New York Times set to spend five lonely days wandering Tel Aviv on assignment, while coping with an estranged relationship with his husband in back in New York. He arrives in the city in full-on “Lost in Translation” mode, sunken eyes and tousled hair telling the full story of this world-weary man even before he reveals the somber details. That’s when he arrives at the home of Tomer (energetic newcomer Niv Nissim), a scrappy young filmmaker who makes his room available and winds up crashing on the couch when he has nowhere better to go.
At first, Michael has reservations about opening himself up to his giddy young host, but when Tomer scoffs at the journalist’s touristic itinerary — befitting of “a Jewish princess on a birthright tour,” he says — Michael accepts Tomer’s offer to bring him a more authentic look at city life. The result merges the wistful midlife crisis aspect of “Yossi” with “The Bubble,” as Michael finds himself immersed in Tomer’s hard-partying lifestyle while struggling with his more conservative values and marital problems back home.
While his husband has been pursuing a prospective egg donor, Michael has found a temporary excuse to distance himself from responsibility through life on the road. The full nature of their relationship issues takes its time to surface and doesn’t quite justify the journey, but Hickey’s face provides the movie with one half of a fascinating mystery. On the other end of the spectrum, Tomer’s lack of interest in forging any kind of long-term bond speaks to his own mounting anxieties, so that the men wind up more complementary than they initially realize.
The earnest script, by Fox and Itay Segel, hums along with a quiet, unadventurous style that foregrounds its emerging odd couple dynamic. With time, their experiences yield a series of engaging debates surrounding opposing views on sex, relationships, and family life, with little in the way of common ground. Michael can’t figure out why Tomer resists the prospects of long-term romance, and the writer’s own history (he wrote a book about losing an earlier lover to HIV) informs the gravitas he brings to a subject Tomer regards in more carefree terms. Hickey is at once heartbreaking and a source of deadpan charm as he wrestles with how much to give himself over to an unexpected journey, while following Tomer from an avant garde dance performance to a gay bar filled with MDMA and an awkward encounter with Israel’s version of Grindr.
All along, he develops a unique perspective on the nature of a society pushing beyond its traditionalist roots. “We are in the Middle East,” Tomer says, “but we wanted to be treated like we’re in the West.” Though Michael lacks the words to express it, he seems to contend with a similar identity crisis, as the material transcends its Israeli particulars to become a broader referendum on conflicting desires.
“Sublet” has little in the way of cinematic ambition, and stumbles on the occasional mawkish device (one scene that finds the men messing around with sock puppets after hours is a bit much), but Fox has enough of a grasp on the central dynamic to keep the emotion in play. With a third-act journey to Tomer’s family kibbutz, the full nature of Michael’s struggles finally come out, and his introversion falls into place. The touching, understated finale eschews a clear resolution in favor of small-scale progress: It’s a fleeting glimpse of dueling generations and cultures appreciating some common ground, even if it can’t last forever.
“Sublet” was set to premiere at the 2020 Tribeca Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.