Gentle yet bracing, “Dolphin Boy” is a documentary about recovery and rebirth, set amid the kibitzing porpoises of southern Israel, which brought a traumatized Arab boy back to life after an assault that left him mute and unreachable. Israeli helmers Dani Menkin and Yonatan Nir take an understated approach to a remarkable story that could have lent itself to hyperbole, but benefits greatly from having its various twists and turns arrive without fanfare. A natural fit for nature-film auds and the edu-tainment market, the fest-decorated pic should also enjoy a buoyant homevid afterlife following its run at Gotham’s Quad Cinema.
The docu tells the story of Morad Azba, a teenage resident of an Arab village in northern Israel. After sending an innocent text message to a female classmate, Azba was abducted by her brother and his friends and savagely beaten. The experience left him traumatized to the point that he exhibits all the signs of severe autism, including an inability to make eye contact or respond verbally to anyone. That includes his father, Asad, who is clearly torn between wanting to take revenge and wanting his son back.
Asad Azba’s efforts lead him to Ilan Kutz, a Tel Aviv psychiatrist who attempts several methodologies with young Azba before resorting to what he admits is a crapshoot: dolphin therapy at a reef off the shores of Eliat. The results are dramatic and immediate: In some terrific underwater footage, we see Azba, legs dangling in the water, reaching for the dolphin who attempts to befriend him. It is, in its quiet way, electrifying.
It also suggests the story is over, which it most emphatically is not. Azba is a long way from total recovery, and his story still has several acts to go, including a sequence with his attackers that indicates just how brutal they are, and how filmmaking rules seem to differ in Israel. When the suspects attack the cameraman, their faces are scrambled, even though they’re in a courthouse and would be considered, in the U.S. at least, within the public domain.
“Dolphin Boy” is highly suggestive of “The Horse Boy” (originally titled “Over the Hills and Far Away”), a 2009 docu about a couple who take their autistic son to Mongolia, where the boy responds to horses in much the same way Azba does to dolphins. As an entry in this sub-subgenre of nonfiction animal-therapy films, “Dolphin Boy” reps a notable contribution.
Tech credits are fine, with Issar Shulman’s score being quite effective.