Tom Shoval’s debut feature, “Youth,” is a difficult film to shake, thanks to a hauntingly observational yet emotional approach touching on far more than a simple kidnapping story. Featuring riveting perfs by two brothers as siblings holding a peer for ransom, the pic takes a fine-tipped scalpel to the decline of the middle class, Israeli machismo, the culture of guns and, obliquely, the influence of “Rambo”-type action movies. Bold, disturbing and sure to generate heated discussion at home, “Youth” should receive easy entree at fests and international arthouses.
High schooler Shaul (Eitan Cunio) discreetly follows Dafna (Gita Amely) home from school. His troubled energy, as well as the way Shoval shoots the action at a cool, calculated distance, suggest Shaul isn’t merely a teen with a crush, though his motivations at first aren’t clear. Later that day, his older brother, 18-year-old Yaki (David Cunio), comes home from his first stint in the army; for the remainder of the film, Yaki isn’t seen without his military-issue rifle, a common sight in Israel.
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The family has fallen on hard times. Dad Moti (Moshe Ivgy) is out of work and increasingly depressed, while mom Paula (Shirili Deshe) endeavors to make ends meet with menial jobs like stuffing envelopes. Though she tries to give their apartment the outward feel of a normal home, tensions are palpable and everyone knows an eviction notice is imminent. Shaul’s job as a ticket-taker at the local multiplex helps stretch the family budget a bit, but it’s not enough.
The day after Yaki’s return, the two brothers follow Dafna and then attack, forcing her onto a public bus. As with the train sequence in Ruben Ostlund’s “Play,” a great deal of the scene’s power comes from the cool unconcern of fellow passengers; it’s obvious Dafna is severely agitated, yet no one appears interested, and Yaki’s army uniform and rifle preclude further thought.
The brothers take her to the bomb shelter under their apartment building, unleashing their animosity on the terrified, bound young woman while they wait for her family to answer their ransom demand. In the pic’s key sequence, the young men tightly bind her head with fabric and then go upstairs for a family dinner party, where they hide their tension for the duration of the meal before racing downstairs to see if she’s suffocated.
Among Shoval’s achievements is his ability to present Shaul and Yaki as complex characters whose intense sibling bond is silently communicated, almost telepathically, via glances and body language (the Cunio brothers, in their acting debut, give uncanny performances). Their ability to be helpful to their mother and then horrific to the gagged Dafna offers a picture of schizophrenia that’s meant to reflect on Israeli society as a whole rather than merely this family, yet it never feels as if Shoval is overstretching, and the brothers aren’t reduced to mere symbols.
They are, however, representatives of a resentful population denied previous generations’ expectations of a better future. This isn’t meant to justify the siblings’ vile actions: Their brutality makes clear that Shoval doesn’t see them in a “Dog Day Afternoon” way, where their behavior is the result of a hopeless situation. Without question they’re products of an environment where handing an assault weapon to an 18-year-old is normal, but this isn’t used to excuse their deeds. Nor is the near-constant presence of action-movie memorabilia, whether posters or T-shirts, meant to explain away a proclivity to violence, though the genre acts as fertilizer on an already corrupted soil.
Widescreen lensing by Yaron Scharf (“7 Days,” “Footnote”) is immersed in the physicality of the locale, ensuring that stairs and doors, upstairs and down, are pregnant with meaning. Unswerving in its gaze, the camera captures moments that are unbearable to watch, yet their full depiction is necessary for complete understanding.