The unhealthily symbiotic relationship of two sisters is explored in intense, naturalistic fashion in “Next to Her,” a strikingly lensed debut feature from Israeli helmer Asaf Korman. Inspired by the experiences of his wife, Liron Ben-Shlush, who penned the screenplay and plays the lead role, the film centers on Chelli, a pretty security guard, who is raising her mentally disabled younger sister Gabby (Dana Ivgy) on her own. Further fest play is in the cards for this provocative, confrontational item, which marks Korman and Ben-Shlush as talents to watch, while Ivgy should draw accolades for her strong, intensely physical performance.
Chelli and Gabby live in a noisy, dilapidated apartment building in a not particularly nice section of Haifa. Although Chelli hates the idea of putting Gabby in any kind of institution, she has no qualms about locking her in the flat and leaving her alone while she’s at work. Her attitude is that Gabby is hers, and that she knows what’s best for her. But Gabby’s howls of distress and habit of banging her head annoy the neighbors, who threaten to report Chelli to social services. Chelli ignores the situation and their complaints by choosing not to answer her mobile phone.
While Gabby’s problems are plain to see, it slowly becomes clear that Chelli has major co-dependency issues. The two twentysomething women dwell in an intimate, feral state with no personal boundaries, which Korman neatly visualizes by showing them sleeping and bathing with their limbs entwined, and using whatever toothbrush or hairbrush that comes to hand. An evening’s entertainment for them is to watch television, cuddled together on the couch that also serves as their bed, in postures that suggest mother and child, or a cohabiting couple.
Eventually, for reasons left unspecified, Gabby is enrolled in a daycare program. Jealous that the care provider, Sveta (Sophia Ostritsky), is able to forge a relationship with Gabby, who seems to enjoy her daycare activities and companions, Chelli seems eager to sabotage her sister’s adjustment by taking her home early. As if to retaliate for the friendships Gabby is making in daycare, Chelli awkwardly seduces nerdy co-worker Zohar (Yaakov Daniel), a substitute gym teacher who still lives at home with his mother.
Zohar might be somewhat socially inept, but he’s infinitely more domesticated than Chelli, and when he moves in with the sisters, his attempt to bring Chelli up to his standards of cleanliness reps one of the pic’s welcome lighter moments. To Chelli’s surprise and resentment, Zohar proves to be great with Gabby, though he doesn’t take to Chelli’s perverse habit of bringing her into the room where they’re sleeping or having sex.
Ben-Shlush’s subtle screenplay, her first, transforms what initially seems like familiar material into something dark and strange, and doesn’t shy away from forcing viewers to confront the uncomfortable sexual situations in which her characters find themselves. Directing with restraint and sensitivity, Korman uses the expert widescreen lensing of Amit Yasour to create a tense, claustrophobic environment. Tightly framed, sometimes in extreme closeup, Chelli is locked into a situation where she crosses the lines between love and sacrifice, nurturing and torturing.
In what is essentially a three-hander, the performances are excellent all around. Petite looker Ben-Shlush endows the tightly wound Chelli with a sometimes mean-spirited contrariness that isn’t so obvious at first, but plays out in strange, unexpected ways. In contrast, Daniel makes Zohar ever more likable and grounded. In perhaps the most demanding part, Ivgy’s acting seems so natural, it’s hard to believe it’s even a performance.
Gritty, realist art direction reinforces the sense of the characters’ enclosed world, just as the sophisticated sound design of near-constant background noise ups the tension.