“Blush” is perhaps not the most apposite English-language title for writer-director Michal Vinik’s fresh, frank look at coming out and coming of age in contemporary Israel: It’s a film that shows little shyness in tackling a variety of sexual, political and domestic tensions. Originally titled “Barash” (the last name of the troubled family on which it centers), the film was perhaps renamed to rightly shift focus to its compelling female protagonist Naama — a 17-year-old social outlier getting to grips with her homosexuality as she rails against her conservative, anti-Palestinian parents. Played with verve and vulnerability by Sivan Noam Shimon, she’s a character vivid enough to keep the film spiky even it covers some universally well-tilled terrain. Already warmly received on the festival circuit, “Blush” should play across multiple platforms to hip, LGBT-led audiences when distributor Film Movement releases it Stateside.
“Let her live her life!” Naama roars to her bearish father Gideon (Dvir Benedek) at a climactic familial contretemps toward the end of Vinik’s film. Though she’s ostensibly speaking in defense of her differently rebellious older sister Liora (Bar Ben Vakil), it’s a clear cry of self-assertion too — and one that’s met with a hard slap across the face from an unyielding parent. It’s one of several moments where Vinik swerves, with a violent jolt, from a potentially sentimental or cathartic resolution. Being an independent woman, let alone a lesbian, in Naama’s social and cultural environment comes with few external rewards.
Naama’s early gestures of non-conformity — notably a serpentine tattoo on her shoulder — are kept neatly concealed from authority figures at home and at her fun-free school, where students are ironically drilled to salute their country’s independence while being afforded none of their own. Such personal compartmentalization becomes harder to sustain, however, when Naama meets Dana (the striking Jade Sakori), a bleach-blonde free spirit who blithely inducts her into the joys of clubs, drugs and, most crucially, sex — languidly shot in a blissed-out golden haze, as if Dana’s affections have literally let the sunshine in. From the hot neons of nightclub sequences to the summery pastels of daylight, cinematographer Shay Peleg largely shoots the world as its young protagonist, at some points with more effort than others, wills it to be.
Comparisons may inevitably be drawn with Abdellatif Kechiche’s “Blue is the Warmest Color,” with which “Blush” shares a similar setup, though the girls’ relationship here proceeds along different terms. Naama’s infatuation may not be wholly reciprocated, but emerges as an expression of self. (Their relationship throughout is marked and documented for personal posterity: When Naama declares one kiss the best of her life, the declaration must be replayed and caught on her camera-phone.)
Though she outwardly enacts her developing identity in more innocuous ways — enlisting her younger brother to fashionably shave the side of her head, to her dad’s bafflement — Naama daren’t come out to her parents. It’s not hard to see why, given the levels of parallel angst at home over Liora’s acts of subversion: A soldier in the national army, she disappears from her base camp and finds love with a Palestinian man. It’s possible the aggressively racist Gideon might see lesbianism as a less egregious offense than Arab-Israeli relations, but given the irrational intensity of his fury, Naama is understandably reluctant to find out. This toxic atmosphere of prejudice adds a distinguishing, complicating layer to a sensitively sketched narrative that should otherwise resonate with gay and misfit teens around the world, especially as Naama hurtles — with an inevitability that viewers can identify far more easily than she can — toward her first heartbreak.
As tenderly as it feels and articulates these inner aches, Vinik’s script also finds room for piquant comedy in unexpected corners of the situation. A terrific scene in which a secretly MDMA-tripping Naama is dragged by her clueless mother Michelle (Irit Pashtan, excellent) to Loira’s abandoned base seems to be played merely for farce, until Naama’s intoxication prompts a stunning emotional release in the face of military authority. Yet such outbursts don’t prompt immediate healing: As if to underline how far we are from the hugging-and-learning comforts of sitcom domesticity, Vinik soundtracks one tense dinner-table argument with cruel, sporadic stabs of canned laughter from a droning television set in the background. It’s not exactly a subtle detail, but “Blush” isn’t a clarion call for restraint: It’s a film about doing what you can, sometimes inelegantly, to make yourself heard.