When we meet Michael, in the opening shot of Eytan Fox’s tender and insightful seventh feature, Sublet, he is frozen on a motorized walkway at Israel’s Ben Gurion Airport, drifting toward his destination. Embodying both progress and stasis, it turns out to be the ideal form of transportation for a character at a personal crossroads: He’s moving forward, but he’s standing still.
Played with great sensitivity and nuance by John Benjamin Hickey, Michael is a one-time best-selling author who penned an aching, semi-autobiographical novel about surviving the AIDS crisis in New York City in the 1980s. Now he’s a travel writer, penning a column for the New York Times called “The Intrepid Traveler,” where he eschews tourist traps for the more unvarnished parts of a region’s identity.
This means, instead of lodging at one of Israel’s five-star hotels, he has sublet an apartment space in a cramped walkup of a hip, young and heavily graffitied part of Tel Aviv. The place is so, ahem, authentic, that its owner, twentysomething film student Tomer (Niv Nissim), is still there when Michael arrives, having miscalculated the date of his arrival. The floors are dirty, and props from a low-budget horror production clutter the living room.
The two characters are an unlikely pair in most conceivable ways. Tomer is messy, Michael is neat. Tomer partakes in all manner of substances; Michael thinks even a happy hour shot is too much indulgence. Tomer is unshackled from defined relationships and identity labels; Michael is in a monogamous relationship with his longtime husband, David (Peter Spears). Tomer prefers grisly cinema; Michael favors musical comedy.
Yet each man is curious about the other, and it’s not long before Tomer has moved back into his sublet house, crashing on the sofa while serving as Michael’s tour guide to the “real Tel Aviv” for the intrepid traveler’s five-day journey. Moreover, each man grows to depend on the other’s companionship, as Michael isn’t the only protagonist suffering a certain existential crisis.
It’s a testament to both Fox’s gifts as a writer and the lived-in performances of Hickey and Nissim that their characters’ everyday interactions can evolve into weighty philosophical discussions about love and family, sex and protest, and yet none of the dialogues sound arch, or “written.” It is Linklaterian in this way. Sublet may be the year’s most honest film.
The Tel Aviv captured by Fox and his cinematographer Daniel Miller is another breath of fresh seaside air, an uncommon vision from the way the region is usually presented. As the latest conflict with its Palestinian neighbors made vividly clear, Israel is a country that usually makes the news when it erupts in violence. To the Westerner who didn’t know any better, Israel is a place of rockets, rubble, riots and right-wing politics. Fox presents the Tel Aviv I remember fondly from my many visits to the country, a bohemian enclave of buskers and other street performers, where paddleballers play on beaches, the nightlife and culture heave with excitement, and the food is uniformly spectacular.
When asked how he intends to sum up his five days for the New York Times, Michael lands on a travel writer’s cliché, that Tel Aviv is a “place of contradictions,” at once chaotic and laid-back, hectic and welcoming. But phrases can become clichés because they are true. That is the vibe, and it isn’t broadcast enough.
Fox, who was born in New York and immigrated to Israel with his family at age 2, has forged his career filming stories about LGBTQ individuals in Israel; his 2002 international breakthrough Yossi & Jagger is a queer-cinema touchstone. A cosmopolitan director clearly at home in the intersection of cultures — American and Israeli, secular and religious, Jewish and Arab — Fox has made his most mature movie to date, a minor-key masterpiece in both its musical score and general tenor. That Sublet could also be used as a bona fide Israeli travel brochure doesn’t hurt.
SUBLET. Director: Eytan Fox; Cast: John Benjamin Hickey, Niv Nissim, Lihi Kornowski, Peter Spears; Distributor: Greenwich Entertainment; Not Rated; Now playing at the Classic Gateway Theater in Fort Lauderdale and Coral Gables Art Cinema