“America” is a burdensome title for Israeli director Ofir Raul Graizer’s bright, frangible new film, casting expectations of continent-sized import onto a more individual, interior study of immigrant unrest. Visually iridescent and unexpectedly buoyant even when dealing with matters of plunging personal tragedy, this study of a Chicago-based swimming coach returning to his native Israel after his father’s death — setting off a chain of both present-tense misfortunes and disinterred traumas — braids blunt melodramatic storytelling with a softer, more searching look at conflicted identity, both cultural and sexual. If the film isn’t always narratively credible, it’s sincerely felt to the last.
“America” shares this appealing quality — as well as a few parallel plot points, and a quiet, diffident queerness — with Graizer’s 2017 debut “The Cakemaker,” and should resonate warmly with the same audience that made that film (selected as Israel’s international Oscar submission) an arthouse sleeper. Once again, Graizer’s original script outlines a bisexual love triangle of sorts, albeit one where the participants are shy to recognize their affections, and where his previous film used the death of a common loved one to set events in motion, here it’s that most classic of melodramatic standbys — an extended coma — that serves the same purpose. Yet “America’s” sensual delicacy and faintly literary formality balances out its occasional reliance on stock cliché: Sometimes, it seems actively out to prove why age-old tearjerker tropes still do the job.
Only the film’s opening minutes are set in the eponymous territory, as we’re introduced to shy, handsome thirtysomething Eli (Michael Moshonov) at the Chicago health club where he works as an instructor to children who haven’t yet learned to swim. A former champion swimmer, he’s encouraged by his employers to coach competitive teams instead, but he’s adamant that he prefers to teach the incapable — and as his backstory emerges in stray fragments over the course of the film’s unhurried two-hour-plus runtime, we’ll eventually see why. Indeed, there are a number of mysteries to be unraveled regarding this soft-spoken protagonist, beginning with what to call him in the first place: His last name was changed at some point from Greenberg to Cross (“A bit radical, no?” asks one official), and while the inconsistent spelling of his first name (it sometimes switches to Ilai) might initially seem a subtitling error, it’s very much by design.
Eli is, it appears, a man who wanted to get lost when he arrived in the States from Tel Aviv some years ago — and when a lawyer calls to inform him of his policeman father’s recent passing, he’s not exactly overcome with grief. Still, he dutifully returns to Israel to sort out his dad’s affairs; as he enters the family house, sparsely furnished with an array of rifles mounted on otherwise bare white walls, we don’t sense a surfeit of rose memories. (His mother, too, is gone, in circumstances again gradually disclosed through the film’s chaptered timeline.) There’s rather more warmth in his reunion with childhood friend and swimming partner Yotam (Ofri Biterman), now living with his Ethiopian florist fiancée Iris (Oshrat Ingedashet) in an apartment as homely and vibrantly decorated as Eli’s is chilly — yet we can’t fail to pick up on a physical hesitancy in the two men’s interactions, a current of mutual desire that they both tacitly agree to talk around.
Tragedy strikes, however, when Eli and Yotam head out on a nostalgic hike to a favorite Haifa beauty spot, and an accidental fall leaves the latter comatose in hospital, with doctors fearing he’ll remain in a permanent vegetative state. Blamed for the mishap, Eli is initially pushed away by Iris; months later, they slowly reconcile, as he calls on her horticultural skills to revive his father’s barren backyard. (Graizer’s script doesn’t trade in subtle metaphors.) As they bond over common interests and experiences of immigrant disorientation — Iris has never warmed to Tel Aviv, complaining, for one thing, that all the houses are painted white — an attraction of sorts builds between them, though really, it’s the absence of Yotam that they share, and resolve for a time in each other.
Graizer largely leaves viewers to make these inferences for themselves, as we read between the lines of polite dialogue and scrutinize the quizzical gazes and weighted pauses that punctuate the principals’ gracefully restrained performances. Occasionally one might wish for a more direct, visceral expression of red-blooded emotion in “America,” though there’s pathos in that frustration: Several people’s lives might be different here if they spoke up more boldly. The contrasting vibrancy of the filmmaking, meanwhile, occasionally speaks for them, with DP Omri Aloni’s primary-colored imagery taking its cue from Iris’s dense, ornate flower arrangements, foregrounded song lyrics sometimes filling the characters’ verbal chasms when required, and some of the most heavily implied reliance on since Smell-o-Vision had its brief day in cinemas: Never has a film projected quite so much poetry into a single crushed sage leaf, but “America” can take unexpected routes to obvious feeling.