A remedial student struggles with his matriculation exams, ADD, anger management issues and the expectations of his working-class father, even as his literature teacher opens his narrow worldview to other possibilities, in gripping, realist drama “Scaffolding.” Like his TV drama “Unseen” (2016), Israeli writer-director Matan Yair’s feature debut draws on his experience as a high school history and literature teacher for pupils rejected from normal academic classrooms. Quite unlike anything else in current Israeli cinema, the film focuses on Israel’s underclass — kids from blue collar, Sephardic families, beset with behavioral and attitude problems who should count themselves lucky if they can join a family business. Additional fest action should segue into niche arthouse play.
Belligerent and inappropriate, Asher (Asher Lax) has trouble reading as well as with his ability to control his impulses. His tough, shrewd father Milo (Yaacov Cohen, excellent) already has him working in the family scaffolding business, understanding that physical labor offers a good means for channeling Asher’s energy and aggression and managing his short temper. An ex-con, Milo wants the lad to stay out of trouble. His attitude is that literature is dead and Asher is unlikely to be doing much reading anyway. He prefers to teach his son things that will help in running the business, such as a good work ethic and how to best manage employees.
The world that Asher and Milo inhabit is an overwhelmingly masculine one. Asher’s mother left home long ago and now lives in the North with her boyfriend. The scaffolding work crew is comprised of older immigrants. No girlfriends are in the picture, although Asher definitely has eyes for a classmate — yet given his habit of calling women bitches, it doesn’t seem he has the right temperament for a relationship.
At school, Asher belongs to class 12B, a group of deadbeats and jokesters, whose formal schooling will end when they receive their diplomas. Their dedicated teacher, Rami (Ami Smolarchik), shows almost infinite patience for their learning problems and tries his best to involve them and provoke some original thoughts. Even though they may not appreciate his efforts, the kids know that he cares about them.
One day, Asher overhears Rami giving homework to another group of students, asking them to come up with questions to ask their parents. The assignment inspires him, especially given his fraught relationship with his stern father. But when a sudden tragedy occurs, Asher spirals out of control in his search for a truth he can understand.
Director Yair, also a prize-winning novelist, doubles down on the film’s authenticity by casting former student Lax to play a self-based character, surrounding him with his real-life friends and setting the action in his former school, home and workplace. Although a non-pro, the tightly wound young man brings intensity and an undercurrent of violence to the part, as he intimidates teachers, administrators and classmates. In some scenes, very little seems to separate him from a being a criminal. Meanwhile, in contrast to his students with their rage and rudeness, Smolarchik makes Rami a gentle, giving soul who’s also somewhat lost.
Polish DP Bartosz Bieniek brings a nervous edginess to the lensing by incorporating hand-held shots and keeping the camera right in and on the characters’ faces. The cool-image colors are more reminiscent of Eastern Europe or Scandinavia than of Israel.