No easy way out

‘Next to Her’ is a tragedy that evokes conflicting emotions.

‘Next to Her’ film (photo credit: PR)
‘Next to Her’ film
(photo credit: PR)
The film Next to Her is a meticulously crafted, brilliantly acted tragedy about a young woman who sacrifices herself to raise her mentally disabled sister but still can’t manage to protect her vulnerable sibling. It’s an emotionally truthful film, but a bleak and disturbing one.
Heli (Liron Ben-Shlush) is a young woman who has long been the primary caretaker for her developmentally disabled sister, Gabby (Dana Ivgy, who won an Ophir Award for Best Supporting Actress for her performance). Gabby is either severely mentally retarded or severely autistic or a combination of the two.
In any case, her communication skills are very weak, and she lashes out by banging her head or hitting people when she is frustrated, which is often.
Heli works part time as a security guard at a school and seems to have no ambition or thoughts other than her desire to protect and care for her sister, whom she both loves deeply and, understandably, also resents.
Their mother, who it seems has never been able to care for Gabby with love, visits sporadically, and her presence inspires strong emotions in Gabby, who hits her mother when she draws close. Eventually, with her mother’s prodding, Heli does put Gabby in a part-time day program, but she sees this as a very negative choice.
The movie emphasizes how deeply Heli feels responsible for her sister and suggests that long ago she took over from her mother as the maternal figure in Gabby’s life. I appreciate that director Asaf Korman and co-writers Liron Ben-Shlush (who is Korman’s wife and who reportedly based the film on her own relationship with her sister) and Sari Ezouz did not give some clichéd back story. But the lack of a back story is frustrating at times.
Why did this beautiful and sensitive young woman decide that she didn’t deserve any happiness in her own life and should exist just to help her sister? Heli doesn’t seem to understand how she got into this problematic situation and dismisses almost all offers of help or intervention.
A gym teacher at the school, Zohar (Ya’acov Zada Daniel) asks Heli out, and she is eager for a fling. But when it turns out that he wants more, she is confused. She introduces him to Gabby, thinking that it will end their relationship. But he isn’t scared off. In some ways, his tolerance for Gabby seems too good to be true, but he isn’t the ideal man. He lives with his bossy but kind mother and often gets impatient with the dynamics of Heli and Gabby’s relationship, especially after he moves in with the sisters. He’s no saint, and he can’t take it when Gabby crawls into their bed – she has been sleeping with her sister all her life.
This man coming into the house will bring changes to the sisters’ lives, and it’s hard to imagine a situation so stressful ending well. We root for Heli to find some grace in her life that will allow her to be happy and live for herself without abandoning Gabby.
But it’s a tough situation, and there is no easy way out.
The performances are outstanding by both Ben-Shlush and Ivgy, as well as Zada Daniel.
The final tragedy – and you know all along one is coming – shows Heli to have been driven out of her mind by the stress of the full-time caregiving for so many years. She is faced with a certain dilemma and comes to an instant conclusion that changes her life. However, it’s obvious she isn’t thinking straight.
As the mother of an 18-year-old son with autism, I am either the ideal person to review this movie or the worst. My son is very different from Gabby, but I have never seen a movie get the dynamics of taking care of a disabled person so accurately. Caring for someone the world doesn’t pay much regard to is an all-consuming, isolating experience, like being underwater, and the movie portrays this brilliantly, even poetically.
I know that the system often fails disabled people and their families, yet I found myself questioning some details of the film. Heli keeps Gabby locked in alone when she is at work, and this is illegal and cruel. If the social welfare system knew about this, I have to think they would put an immediate stop to it. Apparently Gabby is in the system, otherwise she couldn’t be in the day program, and I would think social workers would swarm over this family like ants on sugar.
Given my personal experience, I found myself put off by the deep darkness of the movie’s outlook, which I fear will confirm public perception that having a child with a disability is a great tragedy. The disabled person does not see his or her life as tragic – that is a matter of our outlook. People with autism and other developmental disabilities are capable of great enjoyment and achievements, albeit usually different ones from their typically developing peers. A sister as concerned as Heli would be in an ideal position to be a forceful advocate for her sister and to find the best programs for her. With help and support, Heli and Gabby’s story could have been moving and inspiring. That help is not always there when needed is the real tragedy here.
Next to Her is a beautifully made film, but I wish it were more of a call to action to help fix problems in the social welfare system than an experience so depressing that it is hard to drag yourself out of your seat afterwards.