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(photo credit: United Films)
SOMEONE TO RUN WITH - ***
Directed by Oded Davidoff. Written by Noah Stollman, based on a novel by David Grossman. 118 minutes.
Hebrew title: Mishehu Larutz Ito
In Hebrew, with English titles.
With Bar Belfer, Yonatan Bar Or, Yuval Mendelson, Tzahi Grad, Danny Steg, Rinat Matatov, Smadar Yaron, Neomi Polani
It would be wonderful to be able to report that Someone to Run With, the first Israeli film to open the Jerusalem Film Festival in its 23-year history, was a masterpiece, but that isn't the case. Instead, it's a well-made and thoughtful adaptation of David Grossman's novel of the same name. Like the book, it is told from the point of view of its adolescent characters, and its fable-like quality may appeal more to teenagers than adults. Although much of its plot is predictable - the ending is telegraphed in the film's first three minutes - the acting and charm of its two young leads, Bar Belfer and Yonatan Bar Or, make the film an enjoyable experience. The fact that the film is set in Jerusalem, which is rare in Israeli movies, also adds to the fun for anyone who knows and loves the city.
The film focuses in part on Tamar (Bar Belfer), a teenage girl who plays guitar and sings. She hangs out in the Ben Yehuda pedestrian mall in the center of Jerusalem, trying to find the courage to perform in public. Her best friend is her dog, Dinka, a golden Labrador who deserves some kind of canine Oscar for her acting.
In one of the opening scenes, Tamar has her long brown hair shorn to a crew cut, which gives her the look of a street kid. She does have parents, but they're not a presence in the film. Casually, she begins staying over with genuine street kids, and it eventually becomes clear that she has left home to try to track down her brother, a talented guitarist who has disappeared into the drug scene around Zion Square.
The parallel story is that of Assaf (Yonatan Bar Or), who gets a summer job at the dog pound and is given the task of tracking down Dinka's owner, since the dog has gotten lost during the course of Tamar's wanderings (nothing could give the story more of a fairy-tale quality than the idea that the pound would assign someone to personally track down a pet's owner). Dinka helps Assaf retrace Tamar's steps, and he becomes fascinated with her, feeling he is getting to know her. But what he can't know yet is that she has gone to live in a strange house in the center of town (many of the scenes seem to have been filmed in the old Palace Hotel on Agron Street), run by a crazy, tyrannical man named Pessah (Tzahi Grad), who takes in musically gifted teens. He gives them bare-bones room and board, no questions asked, then sends them out to perform all over the country and keeps their earnings. He also supplies some with drugs and uses others to sell them for him.
This story of Pessah and his henchmen seems to be based on Fagin in Oliver Twist, and it's hard to know exactly how to respond. While on the one hand, the filmmakers are asking us to delight in Tamar's freedom and her burgeoning musical talent, on the other, they seem to be telling a cautionary tale about drug use and adults exploiting and ignoring children. Another aspect of the film that seems off-kilter is the dangers the teens face. Drugs are a huge problem, but sexual exploitation doesn't seem to exist in this world, although clearly that would be a problem for teens of both sexes living on the streets or with strange men. Tamar finds herself in a bizarre world that is hard for her to understand, but one with some clear limits.
It's not a question of whether Tamar and Assaf will meet, but when and how, which is why there is little dramatic tension. Her search for her brother has more suspense, but that storyline is resolved a bit too neatly. For anyone who knows Jerusalem, it's hard to believe that anyone could disappear so completely in West Jerusalem, especially given that all the teens seem to hang out in the center of town. Any Jerusalemite will tell you that if you spend five minutes in that area, you're likely to run into three people you know. But no one can blame director Oded Davidoff or novelist David Grossman (who has a cameo in which he strolls along the pedestrian mall) for taking a little poetic license with this modern-day Jerusalem fable.
Bar Belfer is lovely as Tamar and has a beautiful singing voice. Jonathan Bar On, who bears an uncanny resemblance to American Pie star Jason Biggs, is extremely convincing as a shy, awkward adolescent. As Pessah, Tzahi Grad is outstanding, mixing humor and menace seamlessly.
Davidoff, who grew up in Jerusalem, manages to bring out the mystery and contradictions of a very complicated city. Jerusalem is the real star here, which was probably an important factor in the film's selection to open the festival. Although most Israeli movies are still filmed in and around Tel Aviv, Someone to Run With, along with last year's drama Close to Home, prove that Jerusalem is a city that is ready for its close-up.