If director Eytan Fox wanted his film “Sublet” to be an easy summer watch, he succeeded; if he wanted the film to deliver a story with depth, originality and indisputable chemistry between its characters, he fell short.
Co-written by Fox and Itay Segal, “Sublet” premiered at the Philadelphia Jewish Film Festival in November 2020 and is now in wider release. The film follows the fictional New York Times travel writer Michael Green (John Benjamin Hickey) during his five-day jaunt in Tel Aviv, as he stays in scruffy film student Tomer’s (Niv Nissim) one-bedroom apartment.
Tomer’s messy and juvenile apartment is in staunch contrast to Michael: a graying 50-something in glasses, a button-up and blazer, his necessities packed effectively into two small bags.
As soon as Michael gingerly places his five blue button-up shirts into Tomer’s closet, half-filled with balled-up T-shirts, he cements himself as not only a fish out of water, but as the outsider — a middle-aged journalist in a neighborhood of artists, an American among Israelis, a romantic monogamist among free-spirited youth.
Tomer, critical of Michael’s stale approach to seeing the city, quickly invites himself to become Michael’s tour guide, and they ditch the art museums in favor of the beach, local hole-in-the-wall cuisine and a risqué, underattended dance performance.
As Michael fills his days with sightseeing to write about in his column “The Intrepid Traveler,” it becomes clear that he is all but intrepid: He’s reluctant to go out and enjoy Tomer’s hedonistic lifestyle, opting instead to try to nurse his ailing relationship with his husband over FaceTime.
Throughout the film, Michael’s emotional baggage and Tomer’s carefree nature are never directly at odds with one another, but we see them meet and contend with each other in Michael’s head.
Michael struggles to figure out what he wants in his life, his marriage and his family, especially after witnessing the triumphs and tribulations of his foil — an eccentric gay man of a younger generation, untouched by profound strife.
It’s this internal battle within Michael — seen only through his shifting eyes, tightly pursed lips and visible discomfort — that is the film’s greatest strength. The messages are salient, but never hit you over the head.
With its balanced and symmetrical shots, “Sublet” is beautiful to watch. As Michael walks through the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, the corners of the frame perfectly align with the corners of the prints on the wall. When Tomer takes Michael to the beach and the market, pops of color delight the eyes.
Nissim’s charm brings Tomer to life, his wit a natural complement to Michael, bewildered and apprehensive, scene after scene. Though a seasoned actor (Hickey) working alongside a film newbie (Nissim) played well to Michael and Tomer’s dynamic, the film’s writing undermines the actors’ chops.
Though the film attempts to depict Tomer as the immature, naive-at-times, boyish post-adolescent, Tomer sometimes feels like he’s too good to be true: noble and generous, conscientious, curious (and, of course, handsome).
As Michael and Tomer’s relationship develops, it feels as though the film trades Tomer’s depth for likability. As a result, the unspoken complexities of their relationship are never fully understood by the audience.
Opposite to Nissim, Hickey embodied discomfort so fully in Michael, that at times, it was challenging to differentiate when Michael was truly uncomfortable and when he was simply uncomfortable to look at on the screen.
In some scenes, particularly at the beginning of the film, Michael speaks mechanically, giving mini monologues here and there that serve to expedite the plot, at the expense of natural dialogue between Michael and Tomer, and Michael and his husband.
Given that the film clocks in at under 90 minutes, some plot expediting can be forgiven.
Still, despite its solid pacing and clear character development, “Sublet” fails to pack a punch.
The meeting and mingling of two different worlds is not new in cinema. Although Nissim’s fresh acting in his film debut and Tel Aviv’s charming locale help give the film vibrancy, they were not enough to set this film apart from others in this genre.
At one point, Tomer sits Michael down to watch one of his “artistic horror” films, a couple of strewn-together scenes of naked actors, reptilian masks and haunting silhouettes. Tomer, though he didn’t craft something award-winning, clearly understands what makes a quality film: good lighting, angles, strong characterization and eliciting a response from an audience.
When the film ends, Michael sits in silence for a while before saying, straight-faced, “It’s good.”
After finishing “Sublet,” it’s easy to feel a little bit like Michael in that moment: Seeing a film that, albeit competent and satisfying to the eye, was a little watery; but, if you managed your expectations, it was good.
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Very enjoyable film, playing at Bryn Mawr Film Institute.