Satirical comedies set in the military aren’t aplenty in cinema. Sure you have “M.A.S.H” and “Stripes,” and “Dr. Strangelove” qualifies to some extent (though it’s more of black comedy about war), and “The Last Detail” (which really veers towards drama ultimately), but classics in the genre are far and few between. Even more uncommon, perhaps never-before-seen, is an Israeli military movie told from a female point of view as written and directed by a female filmmaker.
And so director Talya Lavie’s “Zero Motivation” is a rare breed indeed. But so what. Does it actually do something beyond that? Absolutely. Lavie’s picture is a unique, sharply observed and hilarious look at the monotonies of enlistment, the ridiculousness of subordination and chain of command concepts, and the utter boredom of carrying out meaningless orders. Along the way, “Zero Motivation” also comments on the often-undervalued role of females in the military, their treatment and the friendships forged and frayed within such close quarters, but it’s about as far as it can get from being a “message” or even “response” movie.
Broken into three chapters, because the Israeli military is based around working in thirds according to the filmmaker, “Zero Motivation” centers on the power struggles of three females stationed in a remote Israeli desert with different agendas and almost nothing to do. Pencil-pushing glorified secretaries who work in a Human Resources Office, Zohar (Dana Ivgy) and Daffi (Nelly Tagar), are best friends, but the banality of their positions and the pure tedium of the bureaucracy around them soon reveal how they’re really polar opposites with vastly different goals. The indolent two are juxtaposed by their aspiring senior officer in the HRO, Rama (Shani Klein) who dreams of a higher position and a well-known military career. But with a platoon of unskilled, idle, female soldiers without any motivation under her charge, her ambitions for promotion are constantly thwarted.
And with nothing to do outside of mundane tasks, and playing the videogame "Minesweeper," all the women can do is clash with each other. Daffi’s ridiculous position is the Paper & Shredding NCO–the pedestrian nature of which speaks for itself–and she dreams of being restationed in the big city of Tel Aviv. Rama is a constant hard-ass trying to keep their office clean, organized and in the good graces of her (male) superiors, and the already-disrespectful Zohar deteriorates as the movie progresses. Frustrated about her virginal status, the difficulty in losing it around hundreds of men and detesting her mind-numbing situation, and afraid of being left behind, she’s soon driven to a balls-out madness of insubordination.
Comparisons to “M.A.S.H.” are inevitable. Both are pointed, irreverent and dark portraits of anti-authority, but Robert Altman and Lavie are very different filmmakers and storytellers (and Lavie’s comedy isn’t as bitter). Secondly, “Zero Motivation,” and its comic look at militaristic Israeli culture via the ecosystem that is the HRO makes it a fairly different beast. Well-written, “Zero Motivation” is vignette-driven, but also classicist in structure; it knows that when a staple gun is shown in the first act, it must go off in the third. Based on her mandatory military service, Lavie’s picture is vaguely autobiographical, but more importantly feels authentic, realized and lived-in. “Office Space” similarities may rear their head too, but the only real resemblance is how both are so effective at mining the comedy in dreariness.
Also featuring a strong supporting cast of Israeli actors—Heli Twito, Meytal Gal, Tamara Klingon, Yonit Tobi, Yuval Segal and Elad Scemama—Lavie’s characters (the two hilariously annoying girls singing and harmonizing at all times, the domineering Russian butch, etc.) are extremely distinct, exceptionally convincing and well-drawn. We rarely see characters like this onscreen and we don’t doubt for a second who they are. It’s a great ensemble, but Dana Ivgy as the defiant and bad-attituded Zahor is superb and both a comedic and dramatic stand-out.
Lavie's feature-length debut won the top Tribeca Film Festival narrative award and it’s easy to see why: the movie has a strong singular voice, a well-defined point of view and is extremely self-assured. There’s an unusual clarity for a first-time filmmaker, be it in the sharp writing, the simple but effective mise en scène and her comedic timing (she really knows how to punctuate a wacky joke in a wonderful deadpan manner). Tone is well balanced too as the picture’s three chapters navigate zany comedy with dark emotional beats and back again mostly without strain. Not to mention that, at 110 minutes, the economical “Zero Motivation” whizzes by and feels much shorter.
Like all first features, “Zero Motivation” isn’t perfect. There’s an intermittent voiceover that’s infrequent enough that it arguably could be dropped and Rama’s section loses a bit of momentum as it isn’t as funny as or engaging as Daffi or Zohar’s chapter. Still, festival films always go through an edit and these are mostly just quibbles.
An absorbing office saga and diverting dark comedy, “Zero Motivation” is a surprisingly insightful coming-of-age tale, utilizing the milieu of the military to look at desire, loneliness, identity, fitting in and many aspects of everyday complex female life (we’ll bet you anything someone like Lena Dunham is gonna turn up as a huge fan). Perhaps most significantly, “Zero Motivation” is the discovery of an exciting new original voice in cinema, who happens to be really funny, intelligent and female. We can’t wait for more. [A-]