The main characters in “Asia” share a couple things — loneliness, feeling out of place — without sharing anything at all.
That’s a small premise, but in the well-acted award-winning Israeli film written and directed by Ruthy Pribar, it more than carries this brief window into the lives of the title character (Alena Yiv) and Vika (Shira Haas, coming off her breakthrough performance in “Unorthodox,” and of “Shtisel” fame).
And while a film that explores a dysfunctional mother-daughter relationship, terminal disease and sexual frustration isn’t exactly light and cheery, the gradual bond and understanding they forge is ultimately uplifting. This is no tearjerker, although the final scene may leave your eyes a bit wet.
Asia is a 35-year-old Russian expat single mother working long hours as a nurse, while 17-year-old Vika does what many teens with too much free time and too little supervision do. In her case, she hangs out with a skater crowd, succumbing to peer pressure, smoking pot, drinking and thinking about or fighting off the advances of teen boys.
That doesn’t sit well with Asia, but she’s not avoiding temptation either, as she has an affair with one of the doctors at the hospital and visits bars — when she claims to be working — to find one-night stands.
Neither’s happy, and money’s tight. Their relationship is a tense one, although not atypical for many parents and teens.
But Vika also is dealing with a never-named degenerative disease that seems to be progressing rapidly. When she mixes her medication with alcohol, she winds up in the emergency room.
While Vika is tired of hearing her mother’s admonishments, she soon realizes that she’s going to become dependent on her mother for help and lets her mother in a bit. In turn, Asia loosens up as well.
For example, there’s a scene where Vika, now using a wheelchair, asks her mother for a cigarette. After initial consternation, Asia relents and they bond over a smoke. Not exactly “ABC Afterschool Special” material, but effective nonetheless.
Vika, who is shown earlier devastated by the cruel words of a fellow teen she rejected, confides that she doesn’t want to die a virgin. They have a heart-to-heart about men, with Asia saying Vika was the only thing she ever got from a man that was worthwhile.
Asia hints to Gabi (Tamir Mula), a male nurse trainee who’s assisting with Vika’s care, about her daughter’s wishes. That morally compromises Gabi, who has bonded with Vika.
And even as the bonds develop, they remain tenuous. Vika consents to have her mother apply makeup, but after initial acceptance, demands that Asia remove it.
At just 85 minutes, “Asia” moves its story along rapidly, wasting little time on subplots or extraneous material, and culminating with a heartbreaking final act.
Shot in muted colors with a spare piano background, “Asia,” which won nine Ophir Awards in Israel (including Best Film, Actress and Supporting Actress), as well as three awards at the 2020 Tribeca Film Festival, deserves its honors. In an era of bloated storytelling that features an overreliance on flashbacks, flash-forwards, dream sequences, CGI and other devices, “Asia” focuses on character development.
Granted, it doesn’t hurt that Yiv shines as Asia — her world-weary demeanor comes across as perfect.
And Haas may be even better, never taking her character in a schmaltzy direction. She captures the spirit of a disenfranchised teen, while adding the complexity of dealing with a debilitating illness; that said, after such dour roles in “Asia” and “Unorthodox,” it would be nice to see her in a lighter part.
Yiv and Haas, who really look like they could be mother and daughter, play off each other well. They never feel like they’re acting — reason enough to make “Asia” worth your while.
“Asia” is playing in Harkins Theatres throughout Greater Phoenix. JN
Andy Gotlieb is managing editor for Jewish Exponent, a Jewish News-affiliated publication.