Hebrew title: Shesh Pe’amim
Directed by Johnathan Gurfinkel
Written by Rona Segal With Sivan Levy, Eviatar Mor, Roy Nik, Niv Zilberberg
Running time: 100 minutes.
In Hebrew. Check with theaters for subtitle information.
Johnathan Gurfinkel’s S#x Acts is one of the most disturbing and most memorable Israeli movies in recent years. There has been a trend lately of darker dramas here (Youth, She’s Coming Home, The Slut and others), but S#x Acts depicts its characters’ pain in a way that is so universal, the darkness isn’t just an empty exercise.
It’s difficult to sit through because of the utter bleakness of the world it shows; S#x Acts makes the HBO series Girls (which has been criticized for its female characters’ submissiveness and for its male characters’ lack of gallantry) look like Romeo and Juliet. (The Hebrew title could be translated as either “Six Acts” or “Six Times”, and in English it is “S#x Acts,” a play on “sex acts.”) There have been many films about lost and alienated teens all over the world, but it’s hard to think of one that illuminates so clearly a teenage girl’s naked hunger to please and be accepted and the ugliness of a world in which so many either ignore her or take advantage of her. Those publicity people concerned with burnishing Israel’s image abroad might want to buy up copies of this film and burn them because never has Israel looked so much like any other secular, developed and amoral country.
Nearly all of us, whether we admit it or not, will find ourselves identifying with someone on the screen in S#x Acts: Either Gili – hauntingly portrayed in a starmaking performance by Sivan Levy, a tiny actress who commands the screen – a girl who moves to the Tel Aviv suburbs and is so desperate for a boyfriend, popularity and just a little human contact that she will do anything with anyone; the boys whose humanity is clouded by their hormones, their sense of entitlement and the lack of any real warmth in their upbringing; and/or the parents who know more or less what is going on but choose to ignore it.
As the title suggests, the movie is structured around six times that Gili has sexual encounters with boys from her new neighborhood.
In some ways, she’s just an updated version of all those teen heroines who try to act more sexual and more confident than they feel in order to attract boys.
But unlike those earlier female protagonists, it’s clear from the beginning that there will be no happy ending here. There is no nice-guy friend hanging around whose merits Gili will recognize by the last reel, nor is there a hero who will take a second look at her and ask her to go steady. There is no romance in their world of shopping-mall parking lots, deserted luxury pools and expensive real estate with top-ofthe- line appliances.
That Gili lives in a cramped apartment with her mother is a bit of social commentary, perhaps, but it’s more than her family’s lack of cash that has created her desperation. Gili has grown up in a world stripped of all romance and illusion, but her humanity and hunger for love keeps sending her back to willingly participate in escalating scenes of sexual humiliation.
I would be irresponsible if I did not caution parents of teenage girls about seeing this movie. S#x Acts will be unspeakably painful for anyone who is raising a female teen, and they should watch it only with heart-attack medication and Valium at the ready.
But for those who would shoot the messenger, the fact that this film is so disturbing is a tribute to the skill of its director and screenwriter Rona Segal. If this is what life is like for many teen girls (and it certainly feels real), then somebody has got to report back from this battlefield, and a movie like this is much more effective than a panel of talking heads arguing about girls’ lack of self esteem on the evening news. Gili is not a young woman with low self-esteem; she simply has none at all.
The sex scenes in the film will shock some viewers, but sadness is the underlying emotion in Gurfinkel’s impressive feature-film directorial debut.