ZERO MOTIVATION * * *
Starring Dana Ivgny, Nelly Tagar, Shani Klein, Yonit Tobi and Tamara Klingon. Written and directed by Talya Lavie.
“There’s a war going on,” we’re told more than once in Talya Lavie’s irreverent and hugely promising debut feature about an all-female unit of office drones idly killing time at a remote Israeli Defense Forces outpost. We never do see any sign of this war beyond a droll tracking shot of commemorative propaganda posters, and politics aren’t even so much as mentioned. (The closest thing the movie gets to a battle sequence is fought with staple guns.)
Inspired by the filmmaker’s own experiences, Zero Motivation is a comedy of bureaucratic drudgery with a bunch of gals stuck in the middle of nowhere trying not to drive each other crazy while running the clock down on their mandatory service.
Daffi (Nelly Tagar) is the go-getter, a self-appointed “NCO of paper and shredding.” Allergic to the desert sand and pretty much everything else under this blazing sun, Daffi dreams of being transferred to the bright lights and big city of Tel Aviv. But for now she’s stranded out here, filling the days with her surly sidekick Zohar (Dana Ivgny) — playing endless games of Minesweeper, pacing out pointless, menial tasks and waiting for their lives to begin.
Structured as three interconnected vignettes in which characters take turns at center stage, Zero Motivation sneaks up on you as it goes along, offering unexpected shadings and variations on the minor-key aura of absurdism. A lot of the time it feels like a more muted M*A*S*H, with the anarchic urgency tamped down by its distance from blood and guts but boasting the same healthy contempt for institutionalized power. The few male soldiers we meet are dopey horndog yahoos, one of whom faces a well-deserved humiliation that feels like Lavie’s sly gender-flip on Hot Lips Houlihan’s shower scene.
With her perpetually, insolently furrowed brow, Dana Ivgny’s Zohar is the Bill Murray of this kibbutz-set Stripes. But credit the movie for realizing just how annoying it must be to have get up every morning and go to work for eight hours a day alongside a Yossarian character. Zohar’s petty, low-stakes rebellions are often a lot more trouble than they’re worth. The second chapter is the most satisfying, straddling a deftly-played strain of magic realism as this been-there-done-that know-it-all on the base is suddenly desperate to shed her not-so-secret virginity, with disastrous results.
Lavie allows these people to keep surprising you — particularly in the case of Rama (Shani Klein), the warthog-looking office martinet, who begins the film as a cartoon well-deserving of ridicule and develops into a much sadder figure as the reels wear on. By the time its surprisingly affecting final scenes roll around, Zero Motivation has attained a weary sort of wisdom. As much fun as it may be to rage against the machine (and Zohar makes it terribly amusing) the machine is still always going to win. Accepting that is one of the most terrible parts of growing up, whether there’s a war going on or not.