The struggle to fit in

The new Israeli film ‘Flawless’ focuses on spineless girls

‘Flawless’ (photo credit: ZION EATIEL)
(photo credit: ZION EATIEL)
Three teen girls in Jerusalem — one of whom is transgender — sell their kidneys to an organ-trafficker in the Ukraine to pay for breast implants before the prom.
Yes, you read that right. That’s the premise of Flawless, the latest film by Tal Granit and Sharon Maymon, whose previous collaboration, The Farewell Party, was a similarly issue-oriented movie about assisted suicide for the elderly.
Flawless, which received the most Ophir nominations of any movie this year, tries to combine two hot-button issues — female insecurity and the struggles of a transgender teen to fit in — and ends up with an unconvincing, superficial look at both of these subjects.
It plays like an awkward combination of a horror movie and a teen telenovella. As I watched it, I wondered how literally we were meant to be taking it; at certain points, the directors were clearly going for a kind of heightened reality.
For example, Flawless opens with a boy riding into school on a white horse to ask a girl to the prom. That is a nice moment, showing an exaggerated version of a prom invitation from the point of view of the girls who are watching.
Two of the heroines, Keshet (Noam Lugasy) and Mika (Netsanet Mekonen), stare with envy, murmuring about their plans to get breast implants so that some boy will ask them. Keshet and Mika are funny, outspoken and alternately contemptuous and jealous of the rich, mean girls at their school. They are also very attractive, although of course it’s a fact that teen girls tend to be insecure, no matter how beautiful they are.
But it’s odd in a movie that portrays girls who are willing to mutilate themselves and to risk their lives and health for bigger breasts, that the girl they are so jealous of, the one who is invited by the guy on the white horse, is a strong, accomplished gymnast, not a bimbo with a big chest.
Before you have time to ponder these contradictions, Eden (Stav Strashko), a new girl, shows up and they befriend her. Eden’s family is not wealthy and although she is tall and looks like a model, she can’t fit in with the mean girls and is drawn to the wisecracking Keshet and Mika. Mika is from an Ethiopian family, which makes her an outcast in the popularity sweepstakes, according to the movie’s vision.
But Eden’s new friends don’t know that she is transgender. Eden’s single-parent dad has moved her and her sisters all over the country, fleeing from bullies who torment Eden in each location. He’s more understanding than many would be, using female pronouns to refer to her and allowing her to take hormones. But he won’t let her get the breast implants she desperately wants, asking her whether or not her transgender identity might be a phase.
So, soon enough, Keshet and Mika include her in their plans and put her into contact with the evil organ broker, Keren (Assi Levi), they have found online.
Although she is initially reluctant, Eden joins Mika and Keshet on a trip to the Ukraine, where Keren is waiting. Keren, like a Disney villain, alternately flatters and badgers them into going through with the plan.
In the sickening aftermath, I kept wondering why, except for Eden’s father, we never got to see much of the girls’ families. I wanted to see the parents who raised girls who have so much bravado, but who were so spineless when faced with the media ideal of a perfect body. In fact, the movie ought to be titled “Spineless.”
While of course, there are complexities and contradictions in everyone’s behavior, it was hard to square these girls’ humor and assertiveness with their slavish devotion to the idea that breast implants would transform their lives. At one point, Keshet asks, “Where were we when they were handing out tits?” and Eden replies, “In the line for brains,” and all three laugh. Would girls who can joke like this really be so quick to part with their kidneys?
I don’t have daughters, so I asked my friends who do – in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and New York – do your girls, or girls in their class, feel so crippled by not having huge breasts that they would make such a self-destructive decision? It took me a while to get them to believe that I was really describing the plot of a movie – they thought I was joking. While the unrealistic ideals presented by airbrushed models certainly have a negative influence on vulnerable girls, don’t most teens learn to ignore this silliness? In an era when Sports Illustrated uses plus-size models and athletes in their swimsuit issue, hasn’t the tide begun to turn?
But the movie isn’t really interested in these questions. It wants us to be so horrified by these poor victims that we forget all logic.
Eden’s motive for wanting breast implants is more complex because of her transgender identity, but I didn’t feel that weaving her story into the kidney horror show added much.
The movie is carefully made and not boring, buoyed by the charm and energy of its cast. The young actors give outstanding performances. Stav Strashko is utterly convincing as Eden, and Noam Lugasy and Netsanet Mekonen are equally winning. Mekonen has real star quality and I look forward to seeing her in more movies. Arad Triffon Reshef is also very good as a sensitive boy whom the heroines humiliate and reject, just as the mean girls do to them.
When I look at girls pouring out of high schools today, I see blue hair and nose rings and tattoos, girls who are assertive and animated. I’d like to see a movie about the inner lives of these girls, in all their awkwardness and grace. This is not that movie.