- The Magazine
Stirring ripples, not waves, of tenderness and passion, Sublet (★★☆☆☆), the latest feature from Israeli auteur Eytan Fox (Yossi & Jagger), indicates a profound meeting of kindred souls that doesn’t really register onscreen.
Michael (John Benjamin Hickey) and Tomer (Niv Nissim), the film’s central pair, engage in dry, mildly flirtatious banter nearly from the start of their relationship as tourist and host. Michael, a gay, married, middle-aged travel writer for The New York Times, is subletting Tel Aviv native Tomer’s apartment in the city’s “coolest neighborhood ever,” according to the twentysomething aspiring filmmaker. Shot in golden, natural light, its metropolitan rhythms playing out over Tom Darom and Assa Raviv’s evocative score, the city does have an allure.
The mild-mannered Michael seems less concerned about finding what’s cool about Tel Aviv than he is in seeking a soulful exploration of the city’s unique and hidden pleasures, as curated by a local. Perfect: Tomer’s got nothing better to do, and nowhere better to stay than his own apartment, so he crashes at his place, while showing Michael his Tel Aviv.
In a hotter-blooded foray into foreign travel, this scenario might lead in any number of blissfully kinky directions, or towards some gripping will-they-or-won’t-they suspense. But Michael, despite clearly finding the handsome, carefree Israeli attractive, maintains a tasteful, professional distance. He’s a bit too studiously tasteful to be believed at times.
“I really don’t get this,” he declares, watching Tomer browse the Israeli equivalent of Grindr. “Ordering sex like a pizza.” Rather than sounding merely opposed to the idea of à la carte hookups, he comes off as strangely unaware of gay male behavior for a grown-ass New Yorker with a husband and Times byline.
Hickey, lending the writer an understated melancholy, doesn’t betray much beyond that, working often in close-up reaction shots that leave Michael silently staring at his lissome host. Nissim, in his first feature film role, is warm and watchable, though not entirely successful at turning Tomer into more than a midlife fantasy of a captive audience.
For much of their time together, Michael seems generally repressed and despondent, and not an especially vigorous touring companion. Yet the script, by Fox and Itay Segal, demands Tomer find endless fascination in his guest’s tepid, bourgeois charm. Frequently, Michael notes with interest how “interesting” he finds this or that, without adding much of interest himself. It’s meant to be a running joke, but lands as more of an unintended self-commentary.
Given the opportunity to let loose once in a while, Michael usually demurs, preferring to remain aloof, observing Tomer’s spirited interactions with faint amusement, or unexplained sadness. That is, until we learn of his very good reason for walling his emotions behind wistful smiles and lingering glances.
His big confessional moment, allowing those walls finally to collapse into the briefest display of raw hurt, might actually save him from seeming just an insufferably lame date.
But it really doesn’t account for the effect he has on Tomer.
Sublet opens Friday, June 11 at the Avalon Theatre, 5612 Connecticut Ave. NW, and on VOD and Digital Friday, July 9. Visit www.theavalon.org
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