By Michael Fox
“Off White Lies,” the wonderfully graceful and intelligent debut feature by Israeli director Maya Kenig, is a road movie with a twist.
Instead of fleeing the comforts and constraints of “straight” society, the central characters — a gregarious ne’er-do-well and the 13-year-old daughter returned to his care by his ex in California — are seeking a normal, stable home.
Shaul (gleefully played with a seductive opportunist’s charm by Gur Bentwich, who scored the Best Actor prize at the Jerusalem Film Festival) is a would-be inventor of the kind of offbeat household gadgets advertised on late-night TV. His current project is a handheld, battery-operated device that filters cigarette smoke, allowing nicotine fiends to indulge indoors without bothering others. Good thing, too, because Libby — whom the chain-smoking Shaul hasn’t seen in years — has asthma. Likewise there are a few things that Libby doesn’t know about her dad, namely that he doesn’t have a place to live and, therefore, hasn’t enrolled her in school.
Their destination is the north, where a friend of Shaul’s will put them up. However, their arrival coincides with a rocket barrage that’s forced the population into underground shelters.
With a small wad of borrowed cash, Shaul and Libby roll south, bonding on the way. A shy, sweet, yet very grown-up adolescent, Libby (Elya Inbar, giving a lovely, naturalistic performance) is nearly as adept as her father at inventing tall tales or, as she calls them, “off-white lies.” That talent proves useful when Shaul hears on a TV newscast that families in the south are offering to take in Israelis from the besieged north for the duration of the 2006 war. Shaul quickly persuades Libby to take advantage, yet again, of the kindness of strangers.
“Off White Lies,” which screens on Thursday, Feb. 14, 8 p.m., at Wesleyan University in Middletown, has the restless energy and quirky vibe that one associates with American independent films, and which has found its way into such terrific Israeli movies as “Broken Wings” and “Jellyfish.”
We don’t expect anything horrible to take place in a film like this, other than Shaul’s inevitable betrayal of the trust and faith his daughter has placed in him. The question is whether his selfishness, and Libby’s immaturity, will drive a permanent wedge between them or impel them both to grow up. The breach involves the wife of the balding, self-made man whose hospitality Shaul and Libby are enjoying. It’s what you think (although presented with minimal sleaziness), but it’s emblematic of the filmmaker’s subtlety and respect for her audience that we have to be paying attention to catch Shaul’s genuinely thoughtless act of disloyalty from Libby’s perspective. That would be a shot of Shaul and the wife exchanging a flashy handshake that Libby had taught him, and which we realize she intended to be theirs alone. It’s a brilliant bit of filmmaking, for it conveys an adolescent’s understanding of the world, in which secrets carry enormous weight and sex is an abstract mystery.
“Off White Lies,” which was nominated for seven Israeli Academy Awards including best film, director and screenplay, doesn’t attempt to inflate its small story with grandiose metaphors. It deftly insinuates us from the opening frame into the lives and dreams of two everyday people whom we become quite fond of, and only later do we recall the houseplant that Libby arrived with in Israel at the beginning of the movie.
It was she and not the plant, we realize, that was yearning for a place to set down roots.
“Off-White Lies” will screen on Thursday, Feb. 14, 8 p.m., at the Goldsmith Family Cinema, Center for Film Studies, Wesleyan University, 301 Washington Terrace, Middletown. Admission is FREE. The screening is part of the Sixth Annual Ring Family Wesleyan University Israeli Film Festival 2013, sponsored by Wesleyan’s Jewish and Israel Studies Department and co-sponsored by the Film Studies Department.
The Festival will be held on Thursdays at 8 p.m. thorugh March 7. Other Festival films include: “The Five Houses of Lea Goldberg,” Feb. 21; “Footnote,” Feb. 28; “Mabul,” March 7.
For more information visit www.iff.site.wesleyan.edu/