In Tom Shoval’s debut feature film Youth, we meet a family at a crossroads: an overworked mother, a layabout father, and their two sons coping with financial troubles and the slow disintegration of their home. But the sons have a plan to lift them from their failing state.
Living in Tel Aviv, the Coopers are struggling financially and are on the verge of losing their home. Paula, the head of the household, is working multiple jobs, stuffing envelopes for local politicians, attempting to pay the bills and keep food in the house. Moti, the father, is unemployed and spends most of his time smoking and cruising around with family friend Itzik. Our guides through the movie are their two sons Yaki and Shaul, played by actual brothers Eitan and David Cunio. Yaki is home on leave after beginning his mandated military service. He has brought back his standard issue rifle, with which he and younger brother Shaul have concocted a plan to save their family from certain financial doom. They will kidnap a young girl and ransom her back to her family. While they have made preparations – how they will take her, where they will keep her, and how they will get her there – Yaki and Shaul have bitten off more than they can chew. They succeed in abducting the girl but their caper hits a snag when they are unable to get in contact with the girl’s family. They call repeatedly and are greeted by a cheery family voicemail. It is not until their captive explains that her family will not answer the phone because it is Shabbat that they realize everything has gone south.
Shoval has made a family drama masquerading as a crime film. While the centerpiece of the movie is the abduction and subsequent imprisonment of this young girl, the worry that the Cooper’s will lose their home never abates. At times this worry overshadows the horror of the kidnapping, in that, if they can pull this off everything will be fine. For the brothers, this plan is no less viable than their mother’s (working too much) or their father’s (not working at all.) To them, it stands a better chance of saving them. The brothers make frequent comments about the futility of their mother’s many jobs and their father’s uselessness as a provider, so they assume the unfamiliar role of provider. Never is this more evident than when we see the brothers’ inability to execute their plan smoothly. These setbacks indicate that the brothers are not criminal masterminds, but rather creatures acting out of necessity, attempting to save their family from their Sisyphean existence of getting by on odd jobs and hope. By framing the story in this way Shoval keeps the brothers identifiable as the protagonists. They are Robin Hood figures – ransoming the daughter of a wealthy family to provide for their struggling family – not enterprising criminals. While their plan is illegal (and possibly immoral) their motivations are understandable.
As the title implies, Youth is also a film about growing up. Shaul is in high school and is seemingly alone for the first time now that Yaki has begun his conscription. When Yaki comes home on leave they resume a very intimate relationship: communicating with nods and glances, wearing each others clothes, and urinating together in the same toilet. These images imply a deeper relationship of times past that we can only glimpse. Now, however, the family’s financial woes have thrust the brothers into the role of providers, attempting to succeed where there parents have failed and signaling the end of that idyllic childhood. That loss of innocence is best represented in a scene where the brothers’ hugging turns to grappling, a fitting image for the movie as a whole.
Their relationship is a last holdout in their crumbling world. Their parents have failed to ensure the security of not only their apartment, but their home. This is what they are working for, what they are risking it all for. Their apartment, their domicile, is necessary to live. But their home is necessary for survival. As the material objects are stripped away and the the home begins to breakdown Yaki and Shaul cling to each other in a last ditch effort to save what may be not be salvageable.
Adding to the tension and tragic beauty of Shoval’s movie is the beautiful camerawork. Particularly striking are the sequences shot outdoors. The camera tracks the brothers as they stalk their victim, winding through the suburban streets of Tel Aviv, framing it so that the audience is complicit in their crime. In this, Shoval succeeds in creating a world that feels real, that would exist whether or not the cameras were there to record it.
The Verdict: 4 out of 5
Youth is a film about the difficulty of growing up and about how we cope with it. Shoval uses the backdrop of living in an increasingly disappearing middle class to frame that conversation. Youth is an immediately relevant film that transcends its middle eastern setting, talking about what it is to live in modern society, something to which we can all relate.