It’s often sweet when a daughter takes after her mother, but the wrinkle in “Or” is that the title character’s mom is a prostitute. Consistently engaging, non-judgmental and cumulatively powerful two-hander marks a noteworthy feature debut for Israeli helmer Keren Yedaya. Excellent perfs and a rigorously intimate camera style distinguish fest-ready portrait of two hardworking women working way too hard for dead end returns.
Seventeen-year-old Or (Dana Ivgy) is a lovely young woman with a real trouper’s spirit. Her still-striking single mom Ruthie (Ronit Elkabetz) has been hooking for 20 years and her health is deteriorating. After a stint in the hospital for Ruthie, enterprising Or makes her mom promise to go straight and finds her a job cleaning a woman’s house. Ruthie takes the job and seems mildly enthused but still has a near-Pavlovian attachment to servicing men for money.
Or attends high school more or less regularly, scrubs dishes at a restaurant, collects cans and bottles for the deposit and cleans the stairs of their modest Tel Aviv apartment building. Although she has moderately more positive relationships with kids her own age and the weather is less harsh than in Belgium, Or’s relentless survival routine is not that far removed from that of the title teen in the Dardenne Bros. “Rosetta.”
Or and the neighbor’s son Ido (Meshar Cohen) enjoy a blossoming romance but circumstances conspire to put a price on Or’s young flesh. Pic sustains a tone of workaday sordidness that speaks volumes about the role of women in Israeli society, particularly in low-income communities. Or is admirably self-reliant; her mother calls her by the film’s French title “my treasure” between bouts of self-destructive behavior.
In a near-wordless scene, Or’s heart can almost be seen breaking while her mother gets dolled up for another punishing night on the street. Helmer uses stationary-camera sequence shots as highly effective narrative building blocks. Femme leads, both of whom wear their occasional nudity as naturally as most people wear clothes, are outstanding.