Rough, formulaic but effective, “White Panther” follows a young man’s attempts to rise above his crime-ridden ghetto life through athletics, set within the context of angry, alienated Russian-Jewish emigres disdainful of mainstream Israeli society. Danni Reisfeld’s scruffy first feature deals with issues of culture clash and gang violence among that nation’s ever-more-diverse population. New-director spotlights, youth-oriented festival programs and some offshore home-format sales are signaled.
Keeping a tight lid on his emotions is the best way Alex (Yevgeny Orlov) knows to deal with his largely unpleasant lot, sharing a public-housing apartment with his ailing, widowed mother (Natasha Manor) and his blustering older brother, Yevgeny (Zura Vulkan Kartvelishvily). Yevgeny is the head of a crew of Russian-nationalist skinheads who refuse to integrate into their adopted nation and beat up anyone who looks at them the wrong way. He himself answers to older Russian mafia types who use this group of easily manipulated, volatile youths to perform (mostly) petty crimes. While Mom despairs of her “bad seed” offspring, Alex simply tries to evade getting sucked into Yevgeny’s various illegal activities. His alternatives are few, however, given that most employers regard such former-Soviet-territory emigres with suspicion, and vice versa.
Mentioning that his father volunteered for and died in Israeli military service, Alex is spared arrest over a club fight by army vet turned cop David (Ze’ev Revach), who takes a shine to the shy, taciturn boy. On the side the older man runs a boxing gym, and spies natural talent in his new protegee, despite hostility from his largely Moroccan-Jewish trainees. But Alex’s hopes of realizing his competitive sports dream are clouded by increasing pressure from Yevgeny to get with the criminal program, even as he embarks on a tentative romance with David’s feisty daughter, Yasmin (Meital Gal).
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This is not especially complicated or surprising material, and there’s little room for nuance or psychological depth. But it’s briskly, capably handled, the convincing milieu accentuated by the writer-helmer’s use of some Russian-Israeli gang members in smaller roles. (Pic expands on his 2001 semi-fictive short, “The White Panthers.”) Straightforward low-budget assembly has no need for higher production gloss.