Though touted as an Israeli “Billy Elliot,” Eitan Anner’s ballroom dancing coming-of-ager “Love & Dance” plays less like a heroic saga of self-realization than a curious tale of chivalry and prepubescent obsession. Set against a backdrop of ethnic conflict that mirrors the young hero’s own divided Israeli-Russian heritage, pic maintains a consistent charm and lucidity with a child’s-eye view that offsets the sometimes disturbing developments. With careful handling and a less clunky title, well-shot, crowd-pleasing pic could waltz into a comfy arthouse niche.
Smoothly navigating the widening gap between his parents, preteen Chen (Vladimir Volov) is equally attuned to his beautiful Russian mother’s (Oksana Korostyshevskaya) love of dancing and all things bright and joyous, and his Israeli photographer father’s (Avi Kushnir) gruff impatience with all things unmanly and impractical.Chen’s destiny takes a sharply unexpected turn, however, when he encounters Natalie (Valeria Voevodin), a mysterious, oddly self-contained young Russian dancer to whom he is immediately drawn. Soon he has abandoned his father-mandated Israeli judo school for a classroom full of pint-sized Russian ballroom dancers prepping for a major competition. Though he must practice religiously to reach even a minimal level of competence, Chen never sees dance as more than a pretext to remain in his lady fair’s presence, a task to prove himself worthy of her esteem.
Not that Chen is permitted to be Natalie’s dance partner — that privilege is reserved for a sadistic little Mafia princeling (David Kogen), complete with goons, who cruelly belittles her at every turn.
Ace cinematographer Itzik Portal evokes something both intimidating and magical in shots of the ballerina-like girls with their swan necks, unnaturally straight backs and carefully controlled stances, shooting them as if they belonged to another species entirely.
In the sensitively portrayed Chen, helmer-scripter Anner has created a perfect synthesis of two warring cultures. Never himself conflicted, Chen moves diffidently through a divided world, as Israelis hurl bigoted epithets and Russians lock themselves away in their own language and customs. But when Chen follows Natalie outside the classroom, he discovers in her a suicidal desperation against which his sweet chivalry cannot prevail.
Script is layered so that, in contrast to Chen’s parents’ cross-cultural misunderstandings, and to the no-man’s land separating Chen from Natalie, Anner proposes a third troubled couple: the all-Russian pro dancers (Evgenya Dodina, Kirill Safonov) who run the school. Their standard meller setup — tough but caring woman deserving better than the philandering cynic she’s stuck with — comes as familiar generic relief.
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