Family disputes and conspiracies take center stage in “The Other Story,” veteran helmer Avi Nesher’s lively drama exploring a hot button issue: the divide between Israel’s secular Jews and the ultra-Orthodox. The fluid narrative plays out against the backdrop of a Jerusalem riven by multiple conflicts as two dysfunctional families separately arrive at an understanding of what is important in life and are ultimately able to dial back their desire to deal in inflexible absolutes. Like Nesher’s other features of the past decade (“Past Life,” “The Wonders” and “The Matchmaker”) this smartly cast and smoothly directed drama involves an investigation. It’s a neat script ploy that allows loyalties to shift, revelations to surface and hidden agendas to appear, while keeping the action pacey and the audience guessing. After breaking box office records in Israel, Nesher’s entertaining 18th film will start its theatrical rollout on both coasts through Strand Releasing.
Actually, “The Other Story” boasts multiple investigations. The first centers on attempts by the proudly secular older generations of the Abadi family to come up with some dirt on the self-righteous musician/yeshiva student Shacar (real-life pop star Nathan Goshen, who provides several original songs for the soundtrack), the newly-religious fiancé of Anat Abadi (Joy Rieger), so that their marriage won’t take place. Anat’s liberal, rational grandfather Shlomo (Sasson Gabai, “The Band’s Visit”), a counseling psychologist, snarkily dubs the bride-to-be “Her Holiness” and feels that her joining the ultra-Orthodox is a rejection of his values. So, too, does her divorced, real-estate-agent mother Tali (Maya Dagan, “The Matchmaker), who also fears that Anat will soon have numerous children that religious laws will prevent her from seeing. Shlomo and Tali insist that Anat’s father Yonatan (the handsome Yuval Segal, “Fauda”), also a psychologist, return from the States and join their scheming, secretly knowing that he will welcome the chance to get away from the looming court case over his software startup.
Meanwhile, Shlomo also enlists Yonatan to help in his counseling of a quarrelsome divorcing couple, Sari (Avigail Harari) and Rami (Maayan Bloom), who both want sole custody of their precocious, sensitive young son. In contrast to the troubled Anat, who bears the scars of a suicide attempt on her forearms and who led a wild life before turning to the rigid rules of the ultra-Orthodox, the furiously feminist Sari left her Haredi family when she married and is currently flirting with goddess worship in the hope of breaking completely with her past and starting a new life. The question of whether Sari’s paganism represents a threat to her son becomes the hook with which the older and younger Drs. Abadi involve the soft-hearted Anat in the film’s second line of inquiry.
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Later, when Rami takes off with the child, it is Yonatan and the now-thoroughly involved Anat who solve the mystery of their disappearance. Thus, the semi-estranged father and daughter have the chance to spend some quality time together and resolve many of their own issues.
As usual, Nesher makes engaging use of a variety of striking Jerusalem locations. The austerity of the women’s seminary where Anat bunks in a bedroom with three other girls provides a marked contrast with her previous home in Tali’s tasteful high-rise, which is filled with fabulous furnishings and modern art. Likewise, the modesty of Anat’s current wardrobe and mien couldn’t be more different from the highly sexualized way she appears in one of Shacar’s early music videos.
The screenplay, co-written by Nesher and psychology professor Noam Shpancer, feels well-researched, poignantly highlighting the little things parents do that unintentionally traumatize their children. It also brims with the snappy dialogue that Nesher’s films are known for. For example, Tali playfully asks her former husband, “Why can’t you be the conniving asshole you used to be?” and Sari describes her ultra-Orthodox father’s rationale for refusing to let her read secular newspapers: “First you open your mind, then you open your legs.”
In-demand rising star Rieger (the lead of Nesher’s “Past Life,” excelling in a completely different sort of role) and Segal provide the most thoughtfully shaded performances, while Harari and Dagan stress the annoying notes in theirs. The too-little used Gabai humorously plays the age card.
Nesher and his longtime DP Michel Abramowicz have fun by inserting short subjective scenes that suddenly portray various characters’ thoughts and fears, breaking the narrative flow in such a way that could catch audiences off-guard.