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To emphasize the impact of Israeli filmmaker Jonathan Gurfinkel's exceptional and decidedly adult teen drama S#x Acts (in limited theaters and available on VOD today), a little context is necessary here. It's been seven months since I first watched the film (at the Tribeca Film Festival), the final moment of S#x Acts linger still. There's nothing supernatural or visually jolting about it, yet the closing shot of Gurfinkel's film is the stuff of overwhelming psychological horror. It's the perfect capper for what is, on the whole, a bold, devastating look at the psyche of a 16-year-old who's just trying to be accepted, albeit in the most self-destructive ways possible.
In a bravura performance, Sivan Levy plays Gilly, the new girl in her Tel Aviv high school. Smitten by the class hunk, Tomer (Roy Nik), she takes selfies with a web cam and sends them to Tomer, hoping that he'll find them attractive and want to get to know her better. Once Tomer receives the innocent enough pics, he shares them with his outgoing, crass, and misogynistic best friend, Omri (Eviatar Mor), and together they gradually exploit Gilly's uncontrollable willingness to win them over, even as both guys, though mostly the abhorrent Omri, use her for sexual favors. Before long, Gilly has a damning reputation, one that she's pathetically unaware of until it's too late. As a teenager yearning for acceptance, it's nearly impossible to pull one's self out of Gilly's moral and emotional abyss.
S#x Acts benefits from a unique structure, the description of which is right there in the title. Screenwriter Rona Segan breaks Gilly's crescendo of one-sided degradation up into sections of varying length, each one more discomforting and darkly compelling than the last. With jarring close-ups, sinister facial evocations from his male leads, and Levy's superb ability to convey a painful vulnerability, Gurfinkel establishes a subtle feeling of dread early on and slowly but surely tightens the grip as S#x Acts gets more vulgar and humiliating by the frame.
Save for its Hebrew-speaking characters (the film is subtitled), there's a real universality to Gurfinkel's film's themes. Who hasn't wished that he or she could be part of the cool crowd? Or have the most popular kid in school pining for their affections? In that, S#x Acts is more disturbing than most horror movies, in the same ways that Larry Clark's similarly observational, assaulting, and fearless Kids left you in a shell-shocked state and made you think twice about procreating. As much as you want to jump through the screen to attack Omri and help Gilly, there's nothing you can do but watch a young girl get helplessly lost in the reality of insecurity.
Written by Matt Barone (@MBarone)
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