The feature-length narrative debut of writer-director Matan Yair, Scaffolding is a gentle yet chilly exploration of teenage life. Though it’s set in a small town outside Tel Aviv, U.S. audiences may find something universal in its tale of regional middle-class malaise.

Yair, a teacher and author in addition to filmmaker, cast his real-life student Asher Lax in the film’s lead role. The 16-year-old Asher, in addition to being a student, works as a laborer for his father Milo (Yaacov Cohen), who owns and operates a scaffolding business. Milo is a single parent with a criminal record and puts his son to work to keep him out of trouble and teach him how to run a business. It’s clear from the get-go that Asher has energy to spare but trouble focusing, and the film’s attention to attention deficit disorder (ADD) is timely and relatable.

At school, Asher is in a class filled with impaired and wayward students. Though the administration seems to have deemed them as lost causes, they have a caring teacher in Rami (Ami Smolarchik). The teacher’s infectious attentiveness eventually causes Asher, who’s initially resistant to the lessons of classic literature, to take an interest in his studies, but he veers off course when tragedy strikes.

Comparisons to Dead Poet’s Society are inevitable and accurate, but Scaffolding updates the concept for modern times. Part of Asher’s angst comes from simply being a teenager, but much of it also comes from the global disappearance of the middle class. Huge wealth gaps in almost every nation leaves teens wondering how they can lead a “normal” life, particularly when the pathway forged by the parents aren’t viable or attractive to them. Yair, though occasionally too on the nose with metaphor and sermonizing, effectively shows the ways that many adults, even those with good intentions, fail the young adults in their care.

With a feral energy and quiet vulnerability, Lax is completely believable in the lead role, using his expressive eyes to convey Asher’s hidden depths. Smolarchik is tasked with traversing the most heavy-handed parts of the script yet still comes across as endearing and very human. Yet it is Cohen who leaves the most lasting impression, as he so strongly conveys the struggle of fatherhood: he tries to be the best parent he can be even though he suffers from his own limitations and trauma.

Yair’s direction is perhaps overly realistic, and the verité style, when coupled with cinematographer Bartosz Bieniek’s chromatic lensing, leaves Scaffolding feeling chillier than it should. The presentation serves to keep the audience at an arm’s length rather than inviting us into the fold, and as a result the film’s most biting moments are relatively toothless. However, the central theme – that there is more than one model of masculinity in our world, is strong and felt throughout.

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