Michael (John Benjamin Hickey) immediately cuts a meek profile in Eytan Fox’s Sublet as he quietly flies into Tel Aviv, so easy to not notice that people accidentally bump into him walking along the moving sidewalk of the airport. The first time he pipes up is to softly request that his cabbie turn down the radio. In Israel on a travel writing assignment, Michael decided to sublet an apartment, which belongs to Tomer (Niv Nissim), a film student who is as disheveled and hapless as Michael is quiet and composed. When Michael arrives, he finds Tomer so stoned and distracted that the young man literally does not even know what day it is, and only his begging that he needs the money Michael would pay to stay keeps the older man from calling the whole thing off.

The film’s early scenes juxtapose moments of Michael observing the neighborhood or the nearby Mediterranean beach through a lonely, withdrawn inquisitiveness with him somewhat huffily carving out some space for himself amid the clutter and mess of Tomer’s pigsty of an apartment. There are clichéd moments, especially in the first act, of Tomer throwing Michael’s itinerary of tourist hotspots out the window to show him the “real” Tel Aviv, which plays out like a sedate episode of “Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown” as the pair scour half-off happy hours at various holes in the wall. And Fox returns a few too many times to somber scenes in which natural sound drops out to let somber music play softly over images of Michael ruminatively gazing out over Tel Aviv while considering his own existential crossroads.

Fox’s gossamer-delicate approach to Michael’s quiet reflections renders the main narrative soft and not particularly compelling. Much of the film’s drama takes place over video calls between the protagonist and his partner, David (Peter Spears), in the form of passive arguments over David’s desire to have a child through a surrogate and Michael’s frostiness toward the idea. Despite the significance of that divergence of desires, the couple’s disagreements never rise above the level of cool tension. The increasing closeness between Michael and Tomer also feels like indie cliché, each divulging secrets to the other in ways that escalate a bit too quickly for characters who seem to have plenty of intimate friends in their lives with whom they could confide.

Where Sublet excels, however, is in the periphery surrounding its by-the-numbers main story. Fox has long been one of the more subtle and delicate of Israeli filmmakers in tackling the Arab-Israeli conflict, and because that subject is not the dominant focus here, the film approaches it obliquely, glimpsing the irreconcilable contradictions and bleak absurdity of the situation from the perspective of a foreigner. In Tomer’s sphere is a friend who dates a Palestinian and grouses at the inconveniences that causes without going into longwinded monologues about the stark divisions in reality that Arabs experience in Israel. And when the young woman talks of wanting to move to Berlin, she can only chuckle at Michael’s unintentionally patronizing remark about Berlin having been the capital of Nazi power.

More pertinently, the film circumspectly but movingly explores how much more pronounced the generation gap can feel among the LGBT community. Tomer, for example, bristles at being reminded of the AIDS crisis as a kind of shared burden among LGBT people, while Michael himself lived through the worst of the crisis as it ravaged New York City and claimed friends and lovers. And while in most respects Tomer is more sexually forward and adventurous than Michael, there are instances where the older man comes across as the more liberal of the two, the one most secure in his sexuality. The complex character portraits that form of both men tacitly bring into focus the trauma of older gay people who have lived through the worst of discrimination, rejection and neglect and how it can make them as envious of the younger generations as they are slightly judgmental. It’s in these small, almost incidental interactions that Sublet shines and reveals depths that initially seem lacking.

Quietly observed, Eytan Fox’s gentle drama illuminates the sharp discrepancies in life experience across generations of LGBT people, though its core narrative often feels underdeveloped.
65 %
Elegantly slim
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