I've always enjoyed movies that give me a window into a world I've never seen. As an American male with no interest in the military, Zero Motivation successfully does just that. Told in the form of three interconnected story segments, Zero Motivation depicts the banalities of life on an Israeli military base with humor and heart. From what I understand, all Israeli citizens, both male and female, are required to complete two years of military service. While some use this as an opportunity to advance within the ranks, others are content to serve their time and return to civilian life. Zero Motivation focuses on the female population of a single base. Daffi dreams of being transferred to Tel Aviv, where she imagines a more glamorous life, Zohar fancies herself an outcast and is convinced that she needs to lose her virginity to fit in, and Rama, the commanding officer, wishes to make a career out of her service, but struggles to keep her squadron of young women motivated to perform their best. Unfortunately, as a woman on a military base, they aren't given much to do outside of clerical work and making coffee.
At its core, Zero Motivation is a comedy, and a very funny one at that. The mixture of droll dialogue and over-the-top slapstick makes this a light-hearted affair despite some truly dark moments. This is Jarhead by way of Girls, a sort of M*A*S*H for the mumblecore crowd. Each story within could easily be reworked into the setting of a high school, summer camp, or office, but by setting it on a military base, Zero Motivation is able to make an effective commentary on maturity, bureaucracy, and gender relations. Leave any opinions you have about unrest in Israel at the door - this movie is not about politics, but rather about people.
This is the debut from Israeli filmmaker Talya Lavie, who we can assume drew a fair amount of inspiration from real life. I am curious to see if she will make the jump to Hollywood, and if so, what types of films she will make. Will her heritage inform future work? I certainly hope so. While the style of comedy on display would easily play in an American production, a lot of the beauty of Zero Motivation comes from the inherent foreignness of it. Yes, we Americans are aware of what life inside the military is like, but for us, mandatory service does not exist outside of a draft. Very rarely do we see a soldier who doesn't want to be a soldier. Moreover, while we are familiar with social tensions within our borders, our geography and history inform every angle. Being an Israeli production there are similar tensions on display, but they are for different historical/geographical reasons. The character clashes that result are fully recognizable if not entirely understandable from an American viewpoint.
Although shot in a direct manner with no real flair to speak of, the straight-forward approach caters to the tone of the movie. These soldiers are biding their time, combatting boredom by singing pop songs and playing Minesweeper. A visually present director would betray that tone, and it is my belief that Lavie is making a choice by avoiding overt stylistics. Even so, there are a few small surreal moments which may even go undetected by the passive viewer, but if you're on the lookout, you'll see the stamp of a filmmaker who knows what she's doing.
At the end of the day, Zero Motivation is a well-paced, very funny, effectively dramatic character piece with a mind toward feminism and personal growth. It is a coming of age tale, a silly comedy, and a presumably realistic depiction of a foreign culture made familiar by a universally common thread of human desires and emotions.
Zero Motivation opens today at the Ritz Bourse.