'Aviva': Film Review

Best Friend in the World
'Aviva'
A daring leap.
6/12/2020

Cast entirely with dancers, Boaz Yakin's sexually frank romantic drama explores the male and female aspects of its central characters, each played by both a man and a woman.

There are plenty of bodies in motion, clothed and not, in Aviva, a love story propelled by inventive dance sequences and uninhibited sex. But the first bodies we see in Boaz Yakin's atypically experimental film are defiantly still. Their gazes are direct, their self-confident nakedness a rebuke, perhaps, or a happy challenge to run-of-the-mill repression, setting the tone for the emotional and physical writhing that lies ahead.

The movie finds Yakin (Fresh, Remember the Titans) freed from formula. Inspired in part by the double casting of the lead character in Buñuel's That Obscure Object of Desire, the writer-director uses a similar approach to trace the highs and lows of a relationship between a man, Eden (Tyler Phillips), and a woman, Aviva (Zina Zinchenko): They're played as well by another pair of performers, choreographers Bobbi Jene Smith (as the female aspect of Eden) and Or Schraiber (the male Aviva). This quartet of selves appear in varying configurations, making for tantalizing explorations of flesh and identity, complete with four-way living-room arguments and metaphorical bedroom threesomes.

Nothing about the film — which premieres in virtual theaters June 12, with a few live-streaming events scheduled — is predictable or ordinary. In terms of narrative and choreography, its leaps and transitions are often mind-bending, breaking down assumptions and putting things back together in ways that are illuminating and expansive. Aviva can also, at times, be indulgent, frustrating and wearying, like anybody's litany of relationship woes that goes on too long. On top of a premise that presents a lot to absorb from the get-go, certain sections ladle on the muchness too thick, and cry out for streamlining or excision. Even so, Yakin and his terpsichorean cast take exhilarating chances of the sort all too seldom seen on screens these days.

The story begins as a long-distance correspondence — an email version of "an old-fashioned letter-writing romance" — between New Yorker Eden and Parisian Aviva. (The Russia-born Zinchenko's accent isn't French, as she points out in one of several fourth-wall-breaking asides addressing the artifice of moviemaking — welcome bursts of humor amid the emotional intensity. As a further aside, Zinchenko's character bears a passing resemblance, coiffure-wise, to filmmaker Alma Har'el, Yakin's ex-wife and DP for the Aviva's Los Angeles unit.)

The new-love feeling of possibility and discovery between Aviva and Eden is beautifully captured in long tracking shocks of each of them dancing through city streets, among but apart from the other pedestrians, their moves rhyming across the miles. Things naturally become more complicated once they're both in New York. An especially incisive exchange of dialogue touches on the way the written word can instill a false sense of intimacy.

Eden has a tendency toward sadness, withdrawal and self-pity, while Aviva is self-confident, open and direct. The performers convey these defining traits effortlessly, even as Yakin's screenplay unnecessarily emphasizes them, repeating certain points while neglecting other aspects of the duo's lives. It isn't until an hour in that we learn that Aviva is a video artist — whose "brilliance" feels overstated, although Yakin does offer evidence of her creativity and boldness.

As their relationship progresses, stalls and restarts, the couple's other selves become more and more a part of the action. Aviva and her male counterpart are essentially in sync — and once they're both acknowledged by Eden, within the same scene, it's clear that Yakin is upping the ante. The cautious Eden is far from ready to embrace his libidinous and forthright female half, but in a terrific rescue/comeuppance, she helps him satisfy a sexual partner (Annie Rigney) — even though the woman bores her to tears.

Smith and Schraiber (offscreen spouses) are athletic, fluent dancers who bring a powerful sensuality to the film, while Phillips and Zinchenko lend a dreamier voluptuousness. Body language is eloquent every step of the way, regardless of whether the scene involves dancing. Phillips makes Eden's airport nervousness upon Aviva's arrival as expressive as any of the potent pas de deux choreographed by Smith.

A couple of group dances — one in a bar, one at a wedding — are especially enthralling (the troupe features veterans of the Israeli dance company Batsheva and the off-Broadway immersive-theater hit Sleep No More). The barroom scene has a bluesy, boozy energy, alive with a night out's worth of testosterone, camaraderie, performative posturing, chaos and spontaneity. Another group sequence builds upon a terrific jolt of a transition, as Eden's sulky apartment-hunting experience gives way to his tween self (Roman Malenda) dancing his way across the city to Coney Island. Apart from the scene's connection to the Eden-Aviva love story, it's a nifty valentine to New York kids, specifically of the male variety.

The gender fluidity in Aviva isn't about of-the-moment social awareness or changing mores so much as it's concerned with a timeless sense of psychological identity, the ways we can be divided against ourselves or more truly whole. When it clicks, its bracing dialogue, electrifying physicality and cinematic storytelling work like dazzling facets of something we can't grasp all at once. Sometimes, though, the narrative slips into belabored self-absorption. While a capsule sexual biography of Aviva works montage magic, similar attempts to cover a lot of ground through fast-cut bits and pieces fall short and feel extraneous, among them a montage about Aviva's and Eden's recent breakups. It's more muddled than clear, and we don't really need to know.

Mainly, though, Aviva, works as a kind of cinema mobile, building its own world with flickering pieces and shifting perspectives. Through all its mutating iterations, around the globe and through the romantic lens of its central duo/quartet, the film poses gripping questions about coupledom, self-knowledge and, not least, the rewards of artistic flow versus the pain of disconnection. There are stops and starts, but mainly Aviva flows.

Production company: Best Friend in the World
Distributors: Outsider Pictures, Strand Releasing
Cast: Bobbi Jene Smith, Tyler Phillips, Zina Zinchenko, Or Schraiber, Annie Rigney, Roman Malenda, John Mastrojohn, Evan Copeland, Joaquim de Santana, Yiannis Logothetis, Daniel Staaf, Mouna Soualem
Screenwriter-director: Boaz Yakin
Producers: Carlos Zozaya, Boaz Yakin, Bobbi Jene Smith
Director of photography: Arseni Khatchaturan
Production designer: Estee Braverman
Costume designer: Stacy Jansen
Editor: Holle Singer
Music: Asaf Avidan, Ryan "Bullet" Shields
Songs: Asaf Avidan
Choreographer: Bobbi Jene Smith
Co-choreographer: Or Schraiber
Sound designer: Brent Kiser
Dancers casting: Bobbi Jene Smith
Casting: Todd Thaler

115 minutes