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For his modest and emotionally raw feature debut, Israeli writer-director Matan Yair focuses on a turbulent young man whose life is upended by an inspirational schoolteacher.
But Scaffolding (Pigumim) — whose title describes its 17-year-old hero’s day job working in construction for his dad — is no Stand and Deliver or Dead Poets Society, with a second-act twist that takes the teacher out of the equation and leaves a difficult student to fend for himself. By turns rough and poignant, with strong performances from all three leads, this Toronto Discovery selection already won several prizes at the Jerusalem Film Festival and deserves a further look abroad.
Like the structures it is named after, the movie hinges on a rudimentary narrative that builds in momentum as the plot progresses, leading to a single act of defiance in the final reel. Yair based the story on his own teaching experiences, and he shows a deep understanding of the challenges even the most sympathetic teachers face in connecting with students — especially one as problematic as Asher (Asher Lax), a semi-literate teenager who works in the scaffolding company of his father, Milo (Yaacov Cohen).
Asher is a likeable if outspoken tough guy who’s better at opening his mouth than at opening a textbook. Along with his thuggish companions, he’s stuck in a remedial-level class prepping for final matriculation exams, though what he really wants to do is play soccer in the schoolyard. Luckily he has the dedicated Rami (Ami Smolarchik) to help him out, and despite his disorderly conduct, Asher is gradually awakened by his teacher’s generosity and kindness, as well as by the way he makes literary classics palatable for the unlearned.
The two certainly have their ups and downs, with Asher acting out in class and apologizing afterward, yet just when it looks like Scaffolding is gradually becoming another feel-good education flick, Rami suddenly disappears from the scene in tragic fashion. It’s a slap in the face to both the main character and the audience, as the film transforms into a tale of loss and frustration for a young man who no longer has the guiding light he needs.
Lax, who once was director Yair’s real student, does an impressive job channeling Asher’s desire to understand things both about his teacher and himself. He’s unable to learn the way that most of us do, yet he’s constantly searching for the truth while calling others out for their hypocrisy — including a two-faced school principal, as well as a substitute teacher who is the polar opposite of the fragile and effective Rami (played superbly here by TV actor Smolarchik).
Shot in a naturalistic style by Bartosz Bieniek, Scaffolding concentrates on a grittier side of Israeli life — it takes place in the city of Herzliya, just north of Tel Aviv — with a cagey blue-collar teen at its core who has been given few options, especially by a father doesn’t want his son to escape the nest. Yair profoundly captures that moment when Asher finally expresses himself, and the film ends on a powerful note of self-awareness. His teacher may be gone, and he may even have flunked the big test, but the kid has learned his lesson.
Production companies: Green Productions, Film Produkcja, United King Films
Cast: Asher Lax, Ami Smolarchik, Yaacov Cohen, Keren Berger
Director-screenwriter: Matan Yair
Producers: Gal Greenspan, Roi Kurland, Stanislaw Dziedzic, Moshe Edery, Leon Edery
Director of photography: Bartosz Bieniek
Production designer: Nitzan Zifrut
Editor: Dov Steuer
Composer: Yishai Adar
Venue: Toronto International Film Festival (Discovery)
Sales: New Europe Film Sales
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