CANNES — Taking a familiar art house premise to some highly intriguing places, editor-turned-director Asaf Korman (God’s Neighbors) offers up a darkly compelling first feature with the family drama, Next to Her (At Li Layla). Working alongside his wife — actress-screenwriter Liron Ben Shlush — the filmmaker crafts a taut, claustrophobic tale about a woman caring for her mentally handicapped sister, gradually blurring the lines between nurture, domination and delirium. A premiere in the Cannes Directors’ Fortnight should give this strong debut a decent offshore boost.
Set in a nondescript Israeli suburb, the story takes place primarily in the dingy, junk-strewn apartment of Chelli (Ben Shlush), a junior high security guard whose entire life is dedicated to aiding her sister, Gabby (Dana Ivgy, Or, Jaffa), a 24-year-old girl stricken with a severe mental disability that’s left her with the mind of an infant.
Following Chelli as she makes multiple sacrifices to keep Gabby by her side, Shlush’s nuanced screenplay initially portrays their relationship as one of parent and child, with the former doing all she can to offer her sister a loving environment, even if it means locking her indoors for days on end. But the more the narrative evolves, the more it becomes clear that Chelli’s behavior, although riddled with seemingly good intentions, is not necessarily the best thing for either women, submerging the sisters in a troubling co-dependency that’s neither healthy, happy nor altogether safe.
Things take a promising turn when Chelli connects with gym teacher, Zohar (Yaakov Daniel Zada), whose status as a certifiable momma’s boy offers up some hilarious moments on their first date, but looks to be an amorous dead end. As it happens, Zohar is the kind of courageous and compassionate man both sisters need, opening their lives up towards something less sheltered and allowing Gabby to thrive in a more mature setting, including professional assistance that she clearly enjoys.
But just as a mother can smother her baby with love to the point of suffocation, Chelli’s attachment to her sister seems to know no bounds, especially once Zohar moves in with them and obliges his girlfriend to come to terms with her compulsions. Ultimately the situation becomes untenable, and while some late plot twists feel a tad contrived, they only further underline Chelli’s inability to see past her own mania.
Featuring impressive performances from Shlush and Ivgy, — the latter so convincing you would think she wasn’t acting at all — Next to Her tackles a complex subject with a mix of delicacy and defiance, never quite heading where you would expect it to while revealing characters fettered together as much by necessity as by desire. It’s a tough but true portrait of how family ties can both bind and unravel us, with certain scenes — including where Gabby bangs her repeatedly head on the floor, or tries to masturbate — hard to watch, but respectful of reality.
Tech credits are purposely gritty, with cinematographer Amit Yasour (The Slut) making clever use of the spare decors where the sisters attract and repel each other like bodies trapped in a magnetic field.
Production companies: 2-Team Productions
Cast: Liron Ben Shlush, Dana Ivgy, Yaakov Daniel Zada, Carmit Mesilati-Kaplan, Varda Ben Hur
Director: Asaf Korman
Screenwriter: Liron Ben Shlush
Producers: Haim Mecklberg, Estee Yacov Mecklberg
Executive producers: Moshe Edery, Leon Edery, Yigal Mograbi
Director of photography: Amit Yasour
Production designer: Ron Zikno
Editors: Shira Hochman, Asaf Korman
Sales agent: Films Boutique
No rating, 90 minutes