The world’s a stage

'Maya' tells a familiar story in an essentially engaging manner.

maya movie 311 (photo credit: Screenshot)
maya movie 311
(photo credit: Screenshot)
Maya (ISR)
Directed and written by Michal Bat-Adam. Hebrew title: Maya. 100 minutes. In Hebrew, check with theater for subtitle information.
Michal Bat-Adam was one of Israel’s most admired actresses, although in recent years, with the help of her husband and mentor, producer/director Moshe Mizrahi, she has turned her focus to directing. The results have been mixed at best. But with her new film, Maya, she tells a simpler and more heartfelt, semi-autobiographical story, and much of the film is an engaging coming-of-age drama about a young actress. Maya, the heroine, is played with quiet appeal by Liron Ben-Chelouche. Her charm enables the film to transcend some of the screenplay’s clichés. When you leave, you’ll remember her waifish charm (she looks like a cross between Andie MacDowell and Jennifer Connelly) and forget the tired issues the film keeps pushing.
It’s a rare film about the theater that doesn’t resort to clichés (even the Bette Davis classic All about Eve was full of them), but there’s no denying the drama inherent in the struggle of an ambitious young actress to make it. Maya moves to Tel Aviv and falls into the usual aspiring actress routine of waitressing and taking classes from a diva-like teacher. She’s about ready to pack up and go home when she gets to read for a well-known director Hagai (Gil Frank) for the lead in his next play. She dazzles him, and he gives her the role in spite of her lack of experience or a degree in theater. The play tells the story of his cousin, who got pregnant out of wedlock, was pressured by her family to have an abortion, and then suffered what used to be called a nervous breakdown. It’s close to his heart, and as Maya plays the lead role of Nili, he begins to fall in love with her. She is instantly attracted to the older director but fears that if they have a romantic relationship, their working one will suffer. The film milks this situation for some drama, since otherwise it would simply be an overnight success and love story.
But then it adds another drama to the mix. Hagai suggests to thepsychiatrist who is acting as an adviser to the production that itmight help Maya to spend some time with the patients at the mentalhospital where he works. The scenes with the mental patients are livelyand reminiscent of group scenes in Girl,Interrupted. However, they are the usual cinematic idea thatthe mentally ill are fragile souls who reflect society’s madness. Eachpatient has a single, well-defined problem. For example, one womanlines up objects endlessly because “she thinks it will make her motherlove her.”
Bat-Adam is back in that 1950s mentality that confuses psychosis withpoetry (anyone who has spent time around real psychotics is not likelyto make this mistake). Maya is charmed by these tortured souls andbrings some of their quirks into her performance. The doctor advisingthe production approves of this very much because he thinks it willbreak stereotypes about mental illness, but Hagai is furious. “It maybe true, but it’s not dramatic,” he fumes, although in fact the shtickshe takes from the doctor’s ward is neither true nor dramatic. The realproblem is not whether the film itself is accurate when presentingmental illness but rather that it becomes increasingly predictable andstagy as it presents this conflict. Will Maya go her own way and betrue to the mental patients or will she follow her lover’s directions?That’s at the heart of the drama, and it’s extremely hard to care aboutthe outcome. In some ways, it’s a refreshing change that most of thecharacters are essentially decent people – even the driven Hagai isbasically likable. But on the other hand, when everyone’s nice, thereare no villains and little drama.
Another problem that becomes increasingly grating is watching all therehearsals and performance of Hagai’s play. We hear the same scenesover and over again, and only great writing can bear so muchrepetition. There is some great writing here, though: excerpts fromChekhov’s The Seagull and Tennessee Williams’sA Streetcar Named Desire that Maya and some of herfellow acting students perform in class and other settings. It’s apleasure to hear those unforgettable speeches in Hebrew. They remindyou what theater at its best is all about and why it might touch theheart of a young woman like Maya.