Two young women serving out their military service as office workers on a remote desert army base play out the inanity and insanity of military bureaucracy in tyro Israeli helmer Talya Lavie’s aptly titled black comedy “Zero Motivation.” Alienated from the patriotic careerism of their gung-ho sergeant and the chatty, coffee-klatch femininity of their co-workers, they desperately cling to each other to alleviate the killing boredom. With constant references to war and no enemy in sight, Tribeca’s narrative competition winner, full of unexpected twists and turns, inventively recasts conflict in decidedly non-heroic, absurdist white-collar terms that could resonate with arthouse auds.
Naive Daffi (Nelly Tagar) lives up to her name. Whether through her natural inability or as a result of dreaming about Tel Aviv, writing letters begging to be transferred there and crying buckets when she isn’t, she proves so incompetent at office work that the position of “Paper & Shredding NCO” must be expressly created for her.
Daffi timidly follows the lead of her best bud, the sullen, rebellious Zohar (Dana Ivgy), whose insolence knows no bounds. Told to get rid of a stain on an officer’s uniform, Zohar scissors it out, her little acts of defiance slowly escalating to dizzying heights of sabotage. The pair spend the majority of their time racking up records on “Minesweeper” and infuriating their immediate superior Rama (Shani Klein), who sees her chances for advancement constantly undermined by the feckless duo and greatly fears their influence on other recruits. In this militaristic “Office Space,” the mayhem can only escalate.
Beneath the strings of gags and wisecracks run parallel threads of ruthlessness and hysteria which bring “Motivation” a little closer to “Full Metal Jacket” than “Private Benjamin” as off-screen conflicts invade the closed-in encampment.
The bloody, signally unfunny suicide of Tehila (Yonit Tobi), a lovesick girl who infiltrates the base masquerading as a soldier, kicks off a series of bizarre, even surreal events. Irena (Tamara Klingon), a self-possessed Russian blonde who indulges in neither the slacker work-avoidance of Daffi and Zohar nor the pop tune-crooning girliness of the rest of the team, winds up sleeping in the dead girl’s bunk, only to find herself sharing it with Tehila’s ghost.
Seriously spooked, Irena zones out completely, latching on to Zohar and determinedly tagging along after her like a lost puppy. But when Zohar, in a frantic attempt to lose her overripe virginity, is quasi-raped by an insensitive paratrooper, Irena suddenly snaps out of zombie mode to transform into a gun-wielding, bullet-spraying feminist avenger, just as suddenly reverting back to her old sardonic self once the threat is dispatched.
Placing a paper-pushing office unit within an artillery base allows helmer-scribe Lavie to show war bureaucratized and white-collar work militarized. Box cutters, shredders, correction fluid and staple guns become weapons of aggression as hierarchy turns best friends into rabid enemies. The camp’s claustrophobia and monotony colors every aspect of the film such that Ron Zitno’s pitiless production design rendering all objects, people, walls and buildings with the same dull beige-and-khaki palette. Yaron Scharf’s camera rarely widens its field beyond the outpost’s cramped confines as the gags keep coming.