Reviewed by Drew Ninnis.
Director: Asaf Korman
Screenplay: Liron Ben-Shlush
Runtime: 90 minutes.
Cast: Liron Ben-Shlush, Dana Ivgy, Jacob Daniel.
Plot: Chelli works as an assistant at a local school, and cares for her mentally disabled sister Gabby. It is a gruelling existence, and Chelli must resort to putting Gabby in a half-day care home in order to fulfil her day to day duties. Not expecting much, Chelli attracts the interest of substitute teacher Zohar, and the two embark on a tentative relationship. While initially trying to hide the difficulties of caring for Gabby, Chelli is gradually encouraged to let Zohar into her life.
Review: Every film festival has at least one depressing and gruelling film; which seems to document the difficulties of existence for its characters merely for their own sake. These can be awfully tough on audiences; leaving them feeling guilty for recognising that the attention is important, but not enjoying the final product itself. For the first thirty minutes of Next to Her I thought this was what I was in for; it was gruelling, and while I felt deeply for the plight of the characters, the difficulties they face were almost too much to watch. Every detail is there; candid and unvarnished, forcing the audience into the new reality and logic of managing mentally disabled Gabby’s moods and behaviours, the bare subsistence of the sisters, and the damage that circumstance does to both.
Yet at some point Next to Her turns a corner, and reveals that it is about a whole lot more. Sure, this coincides with small rays of hope in the two sister’s lives – mainly through Chelli’s fulfilling and mature relationship with Zohar – but the films aims at something more than documenting, something more than a happy ending. Truth is a hard thing to pin down within films like these, probably why many of these films are content simply to document and hope that they capture something meaningful or resonant for the audience, but Next to Her is not content with that. It aims at a sort of emotional truth, and opens up reflections on the emotional dependencies that the able-bodied characters have developed to cope with their lives. What initially seems like a Chelli besieged by the difficulties of managing her sister’s life slowly unravels to reveal a Chelli who is just as emotionally dependent on her sister for intimacy and validation. The script is a superb exercise in conveying just enough, picking the right scenarios to flesh out a complicated emotional history. On reflection, Chelli’s emotional neediness seems to dwarf that of her sisters – poignantly expressed through her difficulty coming to terms with the fact that her sister has made new friends, and that she enjoys going to the half-day care.
The romance between Chelli and Zohar is equally as surprising; as is the inevitable obstacle that is thrown in their path. There is nothing clichéd or ordinary here; the scrip delivers a fundamentally unique and challenging perspective filled with troubles most of us have little idea of. Everything else about the film is economical; delivering a strict and somewhat gritty realism which complements the two most powerful elements – the script and the characterisations. These actors inhabit their roles; in the case of Dana Ivgy a delicate task of accurately portraying a mentally ill girl, which she manages perfectly. Every detail is deft and understated; from Chelli locking the T.V. away each night to prevent it from being damaged, to the noise of what is obviously a bad neighbourhood, to the resigned professionalism of the competent Svetlana running the half-way house. No audience member will remain unmoved by the final scene of the film.
Gabby loves the children’s ball pit, and it is on a visit that a spectator condescends to remark ‘they’re our atonement in this world, they are lofty souls.’ This seemingly well meant sentiment is undercut by the power of this film; whatever Gabby and Chelli’s relationship may mean, where their commitment to each other comes from, it is not from a place of easy words and lofty sentiment. Next to Her is a difficult film, but one which widens the experience and perspective of the audience, fulfilling one of the fundamental mandates of cinema. Director Asaf Korman and writer-star Liron Ben-Shlush have captured something essential.
Rating: Four stars.