Quiet Israeli LGBTQ drama ‘Sublet’ finds common ground between older Jewish-American and young Israeli

Quiet+Israeli+LGBTQ+drama+%27Sublet%27+finds+common+ground+between+older+Jewish-American+and+young+Israeli

CATE MARQUIS , SPECIAL TO THE JEWISH LIGHT

“Sublet” is an Israeli LGBTQ film from Eytan Fox, one of Israeli’s top directors, in which a middle-aged, gay Jewish American returns to Israel, a country he last visited on a bar mitzvah trip, to write a travel article about Tel Aviv, with unexpected help from a young Israeli man. The two men are a study in contrasts, yet they find common ground in this cross-cultural, cross-generational double character study.

“Sublet” debuted at the Toronto International Film Festival, won awards at the Philadelphia Jewish Film Festival and Atlanta Jewish Film Festival, and has played a number of Jewish and LGBTQ film festivals. Fox, whose previous films include the luminous “Walk on Water,” has handled complicated gay stories with sensitivity before, with “Yossi and Jagger,” a tale of doomed love between two Israeli soldiers, and “The Bubble,” a “forbidden love” story between a Israeli and a Palestinian. The 56-year-old director was born in New York City but grew up in Israel. He uses this film to explore the difference viewpoints of an older generation and a younger one, as well as between Israeli and Jewish American culture.

“Sublet” quickly opens the door to a host of intriguing cross-cultural possibilities, while also hinting at a possible exploration of Jewish identity and an affectionate tour of Tel Aviv. While the film starts down these last two paths, it never gets far with them and instead focuses on a double character study, both cross-generational and cross-cultural.

ADVERTISEMENT
Beth Shalom Cemetery ad

The story places Michael (John Benjamin Hickey), a gay middle-aged Jewish American travel writer, in Tel Aviv with an assignment to write an article for his column in the New York Times about the city. He has sublet an apartment for the five days he is going to be there but when he shows up, he finds that the young Israeli budding filmmaker he is renting from, Tomer (newcomer Niv Nissim), has mixed up the days and is still there — along with all his stuff. Although the journalist’s first impulse is to go to a hotel, the young man persuades him to stay. He just has to clean up the place a little — or maybe a lot.

The slightly comic start gives of the film a bit of an Oscar-and-Felix “Odd Couple” feel but this film is more thoughtful than that. Certainly, Michael and Tomer are a study in contrasts: Michael likes everything organized while Tomer is comfortable with mess, Michael is reserved while Tomer is outgoing. Michael is gay and in a long-term committed relationship, while Tomer is bi-sexual and resists any romantic commitment. But the generational one seems the biggest one. Still, they hit it off, although they soon find differences in how Israelis and Jewish Americans see things.

Michael has been to Israel before, for a bar mitzvah trip, during which his parents argued constantly, so he does not have much of an impression of the place and the memories he has aren’t good. Tomer grew up on a kibbutz, has never been to New York, and loves living in Tel Aviv. Michael’s travel column is called the “Intrepid Traveler” but when he shows Tomer his list of must-see sights, Tomer scoffs and tells him those are all the predictable tourist stops. Michael realizes his local “landlord” can show him some of the real Tel Aviv.

Given the premise, one expects more of a tour of Tel Aviv than the film delivers. While there are some nice scenes on a Tel Aviv beach, a few shops in the city and a brief glimpse of the kibbutz, much of the story takes place in Tomer’s apartment or in the street just outside. The real focus in on the two characters and cross-generational exchange.

There is nothing really “intrepid” about cautious Michael. Things are not good between him and his husband back in New York. Michael’s view of things is colored by his first-hand memories of the AIDS epidemic when it first began in New York and earlier-generation family memories of the Shoah, both of which are distant history to Tomer. When Tomer and his friend talk about moving to Berlin, Michael is taken aback that any Israeli would want to move to Germany, but the young people laughingly tell him lots of young Israelis move there for the greater opportunities.

The script, by Fox and Itay Segel, is quiet and low-key. The real strength of the film is in its performances and especially stage actor John Benjamin Hickey, whose subtly expressive face speaks volumes about his inner turmoil. Newcomer Nissim is very winning, a charming, energetic presence that is the perfect counterbalance for the more subtle Hickey. The script has a couple of stumbles but the strong performances smooth those over.

Overall, “Sublet” is a quiet, touching double character study, that contrasts the views of generations and culture, anchored by a fine, sensitive performance by lead John Benjamin Hickey.

SUBLET,” in English and Hebrew with English subtitles, opens Friday, June 11, at Plaza Frontenac Cinema.