In what amounts to a contemporary Israeli take on “The Light in the Piazza,” a mentally handicapped young woman’s dreams of love and marriage are stymied by her overprotective mother in “Wedding Doll.” A big winner at last year’s Ophir Awards, documentarian Nitzan Gilady’s first narrative feature may have its international commercial travel somewhat hampered by a story that eventually grows more downbeat than viewers might expect (or feel necessary). Nevertheless, this well-crafted, engaging drama should rack up healthy offshore sales to specialty distributors. A U.S. theatrical retlease is planned for April.

Pretty, buoyant Hagit (Moran Rosenblatt) is a 24-year-old living in a small city in the Negev Desert region. But her mild mental disabilities have invited ridicule her whole life; even now, she’s regularly terrorized by a bullying little girl at her apartment complex. Nonetheless, she’s gainfully employed at a small local toilet-paper factory owned by Aryeh (Aryeh Cherner), and harbors dreams of becoming a fashion designer. Her particular fixation is wedding dresses, which she not only sketches but also makes rather clever miniatures of, using (natch) toilet paper.

But those aspirations are viewed as delusional by her middle-aged mother, Sara (Assi Levy), a long-suffering type who has seemingly already sacrificed her marriage and her frequent contact with a married son (Tomer Kapon) to mind a daughter she doesn’t trust to stay at home alone. (Ex-husband and son think Hagit would be better off in a special-needs group home; the son’s wife refuses to let her visit after she apparently nearly dropped their infant child.) Now it’s probably costing Mom the romance she’s managed to eke out on the sly with rugged Haim (Oded Leopold), whose patience is running out.

Impulsive Hagit can’t or won’t understand why she has to live under such strict maternal guidance. As far as she’s concerned, she needs to be more independent — and has high hopes of realizing her own wedding some not-too-distant day with the boss’s son, Omri (Roy Assaf). He’s genuinely fond of her, yet his insistence that they keep the relationship secret from family and friends raises doubts that he has the courage to risk their disapproval by publicly acknowledging he loves this “weirdo.”

When news comes that the factory is to be closed down, Hagit becomes more insistent on making her own life decisions, whether Mom likes it or not. Their push-pull, as well as Omri’s failure of nerve, lead toward a climax that’s a tad more melodramatically unpleasant than this hitherto realistic but middleweight seriocomedy has prepared us for.

Rosenblatt and veteran Levi, both of whom have won prominent local acting prizes for their work here, do fine jobs as expertly drawn characters who are lovingly bound together yet at essential cross-purposes. Assaf is also very good as a well-intentioned but weak figure, and the supporting figures are expertly sketched. Though the darker tonal shift toward the end is a bit jarring, director/scenarist Gilady demonstrates a deft, confident hand with the storytelling, cast and general packaging, and makes assertive use of the dramatic desert setting. All tech/design contributions are well turned.

Film Review: ‘Wedding Doll’

Reviewed at Palm Springs Film Festival (World Cinema Now), Jan. 8, 2015. (Also in Jerusalem, Toronto, London film festivals.) Running time: 82 MIN. (Original title: “Chatuna meniyar”)

  • Production: (Israel) A Strand Releasing and Outsider Pictures (in U.S.) release of a Gilady Nitzan Films production, in association with Makor Foundation for Israeli Films, the Second Authority, the Israeli Film Fund and Gesher Multicultural Film Fund. (International sales: 6 Sales, Madrid.) Produced by Nitzan Gilady.
  • Crew: Directed, written by Nitzan Gilady. Camera (color, widescreen, HD), Roey Roth; editors, Tali Goldring, Daniel Avitzur; music, Lior Rosner; art director, Dina Kornvelts; costume designer, Eyal Melamed; sound, Vitali Grinshpun; sound designer/re-recording mixer, Yossi Appelbaum; assistant director, Shiran Yalovich.
  • With: Assi Levy, Moran Rosenblatt, Roy Assaf, Aryeh Cherner, Aviva Ger, Oded Leopold, Udi Persi, Yehuda Nahari, Tomer Kapon, Lilach Birt. (Hebrew, English dialogue)