'Sublet': Film Review | Tribeca 2020

Daniel Miller
A modest property, worth the rental.

John Benjamin Hickey plays an American travel writer numbed by sorrow who is nudged back to life by a younger man while on assignment in Tel Aviv in Eytan Fox's drama.

[Note: In the wake of the Tribeca festival's postponement this year, The Hollywood Reporter is reviewing select entries that elected to premiere digitally.]

Israeli director Eytan Fox, who landed on the map with his 2002 gay military romance Yossi & Jagger, brings sensitivity, restraint and slow-burn sensuality to a story of cross-generational emotional awakening in Sublet. John Benjamin Hickey's Michael, a New York Times travel writer whose column aims to discover as much as possible about his destination in just five days, finds Tel Aviv to be "full of contradictions, chaotic and intense, but at the same time completely laid-back." It's not a subtle point that he's also describing the younger man with whom he has formed a surprising bond, though that doesn't hurt this well-acted, contemplative melodrama.

While the basic setup seems to suggest a May-December affair, Fox and co-writer Itay Segal have something quieter in mind in a film that deftly balances underlying melancholy with a lighter mood. It also serves as a visually seductive love letter to Tel Aviv and its vibrant street life, without having to slather on the postcard gloss. The low-key drama should connect especially with older gay men, who will appreciate its nuanced consideration of both the acquired wisdom and the introspection of advancing age.

The opening scenes deftly establish fiftysomething Michael as a slightly uptight, pensive man, graying at the temples but still handsome, his somber manner suggesting the sorrows he will gradually reveal — of both the remote and more recent past. He has sublet an apartment in a hip neighborhood from film school student Tomer (appealing newcomer Niv Nissim), who is as messy and spontaneous as Michael is buttoned-up and organized. Tomer has mixed up the American's arrival date and has just wrapped a late-night film shoot in his untidy apartment, but when Michael tries to opt out of the arrangement and go to a hotel, Tomer insists he stay, admitting he needs the cash.

The drama is broken down into five chapters, marked Day One, etc., tracing the evolving connection between the polar-opposite strangers. When Tomer drops by on Day Two to pick up his weed stash, Michael invites him to stay for breakfast on the balcony. The younger man dismisses Michael's city itinerary as too obvious, volunteering to show him some cool neighborhood spots instead. This leads to Michael's suggestion that Tomer stay on the couch and continue to be his tour guide.

Through Skype calls with his husband David (Peter Spears) in New York, we learn that Michael is hesitant to proceed with their plan to become parents, not hiding his irritation when he finds out David has gotten the surrogacy ball rolling without consulting him. Tomer admits that he Googled his tenant and asks about his well-reviewed first publication, a chronicle of New York City in the AIDS crisis years of the late '80s and early '90s, when Michael lost his first boyfriend to the disease.

In a beach interlude, Michael admits that sex has become infrequent in his marriage, while sexually omnivorous Tomer scoffs at the idea of monogamous commitment. His free-spirit side takes charge on the evening of Day Three after they attend an experimental dance recital and he's high on MDMA, prompting him to summon a hot local guy (Tamir Ginsburg) on a hookup app. The conflicting signals of curiosity, arousal, reserve and despondency as Michael considers the clear invitation to participate play out with poignancy across Hickey's face.

Feeling awkward the morning after, Michael attempts to leave early, but Tomer stops him by insisting the American accompany him to dinner with his mother Malka (Miki Kam, lovely) on the kibbutz where she raised him. That entire Day Four sequence comprises some of the film's most affecting scenes, from the quiet train ride the two men share to a more rural area outside the densely populated city to a dinner during which the warm, refreshingly direct Malka draws Michael out on the causes of his sadness.

Hickey, an accomplished New York stage regular in a rare leading screen role, does beautiful work here, tapping into a deep well of suppressed feeling while conveying the embarrassment of a man unaccustomed to revealing so much of himself. This also causes Tomer to see him with new eyes, a shift conveyed in just a few furtive glances from Nissim.

Fox keeps the sexual tension understated through much of the film, making the drama more about the effect on both men of their encounter, freeing up parts of them that were in denial or held back by fear. The writers seamlessly incorporate background texture about the Israeli-Palestinian divide through Tomer's dancer friend Daria (Lihi Kornowski) and her tempestuous relationship with her Arab boyfriend; Michael's ambivalence toward his Jewishness; the challenges of being an alternative artist in Israel; and the lure of a more liberal, cosmopolitan life abroad.

Sublet in most ways is a fairly conventional film, sometimes veering toward the sentimental, particularly whenever Michael's gaze comes to rest on a child. But this kind of thoughtful queer melodrama can nonetheless be quite satisfying, accumulating illuminating details in its portrait of the mutually beneficial intersection of two radically different lives. The interplay between the two leads is expertly judged, the shooting style is crisp and unfussy, capturing many moments of relaxed intimacy, and the sharp use of music serves to deepen the emotional resonance without ever being heavy-handed.

Production companies: United King Films, Light Stream Films, Mazeh Productions
Cast: John Benjamin Hickey, Niv Nissim, Lihi Kornowski, Miki Kam, Peter Spears, Tamir Ginsburg, Gabriel Loukas
Director: Eytan Fox
Screenwriters: Eytan Fox, Itay Segal
Producers: Moshe Edery, Leon Edery, Gal Uchovsky, Micky Rabonowitz
Executive producers: Noa & Asaf Danziger, Aharon Levy, Stuart Kurlander, Simon Istolainen
Director of photography: Daniel Miller
Production designer: Netta Dror
Costume designer: Mira Karmely
Music: Tom Darom, Assa Raviv
Editor: Nili Feller
Casting: Chamutal Zerem
Venue: Tribeca Film Festival (International Narrative Competition)
Sales: UTA

87 minutes