Film review: The school of hard knocks

‘Scaffolding’ builds up a gripping drama

The movie ‘Scaffolding’ builds up a gripping drama (photo credit: VERED ADIR / UNITED KING FILMS)
The movie ‘Scaffolding’ builds up a gripping drama
The class system in Israel is front and center in Matan Yair’s gripping debut film, Scaffolding, which explores this issue gracefully, without preaching. Yair, a high-school literature teacher, has set this film in and around a working-class high school. He is a confident, low-key storyteller, and the movie won the Haggiag Award for Best Israeli Feature at the Jerusalem Film Festival this summer. There is a feeling of authenticity about the film: Yair knows these kids and teachers, and he never sacrifices the story to make a point.
The hero is a kid named Asher Lax, who is played by a kid named Asher Lax, one of Yair’s former students. Asher is handsome and seems confident; but after school, when he works in his father’s scaffolding business, he is subservient to his domineering father, Milo (Yaacov Cohen). It’s grueling work, but he wants to succeed in order to please Milo, a sardonic SOB with a wicked sense of humor. At school, things don’t go as well. Asher is in a class filled with under-achieving troublemakers. His classmates are quick and witty, but when anyone makes the slightest demand on them, they rebel, revealing the anger simmering under the surface. After Rami (Ami Smolartchik, who won the Ophir Award for Best Supporting Actor), a new literature teacher, comes to their classroom, something changes for Asher. Rami is soft-spoken, thoughtful and wracked with self- doubt. If you’re expecting that he will see Asher as a diamond in the rough and nurture him into becoming an intellectual and star student through brilliant teaching and tough love, you need to look for another movie. This isn’t inspirational or feel-good in any traditional sense, and it’s not a lesson on how society needs to try harder in order to reach these difficult kids, although it will inspire you to think about that.
Asher finds himself drawn to Rami when he glimpses Rami teaching an advanced course, telling students to write out questions they would like to ask their parents. Asher is intrigued and wonders why his class isn’t given such interesting assignments. Gradually, a relationship develops between the two, with Asher hoping that Rami will become his mentor, as he tries to learn details about the teacher’s life. But Rami resists becoming a father figure, and his answers to Asher’s questions disappoint as often as they inspire. When Milo becomes ill and has to undergo surgery, Asher is under pressure to take over running the business, which eats into his time for school. Another unexpected and tragic event takes the story in a very different direction.
One aspect of the movie that allows it to transcend the movie- of-the-week, issue-oriented genre is its focus on literature. Rami doesn’t have any illusions that introducing his students to great literature will enable them to earn huge salaries or move to a different part of town. He simply loves literature and wants to help them learn to love it. Yair incorporates literary references throughout the story, including Greek tragedy, and keeps coming back to the questions that Asher painstakingly writes out for Milo.
The actors are wonderful, especially Lax, Cohen and Smolartchik. Whether or not Lax is playing himself, he is a compelling on-screen presence. Smolartchik is one of Israel’s finest character actors, and here he gets a role that allows him to show the depth of his talent. The obvious metaphor inherent in Asher’s family business – creating temporary structures so construction workers can build, as Rami is creating a temporary framework in which Asher can learn – is not emphasized in a heavy-handed way. You can just sit back and focus on the story without paying attention to the metaphors and literary motifs or you can enjoy how they illuminate this moving drama.