From one little tree sapling sprouts a whole mess of drama in Idan Haguel’s Concerned Citizen (★★★☆☆), a cleverly told story of what it means to be a good neighbor and citizen. One who considers himself both, Ben (Shlomi Bertonov), who lives in neat, orderly, Roomba-assisted comfort with boyfriend Raz (Ariel Wolf), plants that tree in an empty sidewalk plot outside their building.
Clearly, he deems his efforts a selfless act intended to beautify his rough-around-the-edges neighborhood, located in the outer limits of Tel Aviv. The neighborhood, aging and rundown, and, apparently, teeming with crime and homelessness, is “changing,” though, Ben and Raz dutifully tell their friends.
Writer-director Haguel shows his cards early: this is a satirical comedy about gentrification, and probably Ben and/or Raz will be the butt of the joke about progressive, middle-class White gays and professionals moving into economically depressed neighborhoods, looking to fix up their new homes and ignore displacing old residents who are mostly people of color. (The fact that this story could be set in D.C. should not be lost on any Metro Weekly reader.)
Still, the movie isn’t too-too obvious in puncturing Ben’s deeply held liberal principles, starting from the moment he plants that tree, like Columbus claiming the New World. When Ben and Raz announce to friends that they’re planning to have a baby, they don’t seem surprised to be asked incredulously, “Are you going to raise them in this neighborhood?”
Of course they will, Ben insists — they want a diverse, multicultural environment for the child. “Plus, the neighborhood’s really changing,” Raz adds, sounding like the realtor hired by one of their neighbors to sell his apartment.
The neighborhood is changing from being populated by refugees and working-class immigrants of color, many from Eritrea, one of whom Ben spots from his window one night leaning heavily against Ben’s tree while chatting with friends. So Ben calls the police to complain. The police show up and quickly, aggressively escalate the situation to bloody violence, as Ben watches silently from upstairs.
The movie, crisply shot and edited, doesn’t venture anywhere unexpected from there, but it has its wry fun with Ben, well-played by Bertonov, honestly examining his feelings about the incident incited by his call. Fraught with guilt, and uncertain of what happened to the man beaten by the police, he’s also increasingly frustrated with his hood and his neighbors, especially after he finds himself cleaning feces off the floor of the building stairwell.
On the one hand, Ben becomes hyper-conscious of his own biases, and other people’s too, like the guy at his gym who, in “friendly” conversation, casually and continually addresses the Black custodian by a racial slur.
On the other hand, his level of self-awareness peaks only briefly before he starts woefully overcompensating to prove his eyes have been opened to the plagues of intolerance and injustice. Celebrating at the Pride Parade, he and Raz hold their “Equality!” placard that extra bit higher and prouder.
For most of its running time, the film focuses on Ben, spending no significant time alone with Raz. Neither the script nor the performance by Darren Criss doppelgänger Ariel Wolf evinces much of a personality for the more passive of the couple. That is, until a very funny plot turn forces Raz to assert himself, which, in turn, perks up Wolf’s performance and the movie itself, as it steers toward a perfect, virtue-signaling climax to Ben’s guilt-ridden crisis of conscience.
Concerned Citizen is available on VOD and digital platforms, including Amazon and AppleTV.
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