From the 42nd New York Film Festival: Or
Its English title named after its lead, Or, an Israeli working teenager responsible beyond her years (Dana Ivgi), but with the alternate title Mon Trésor
(“My Treasure”), Keren Yedaya’s film immediately points to its central concern: the taut, dependent relationship Or’s passive, infantile mother Ruthie (Ronit Elkabetz) has with her caring, overburdened daughter.
Or is Ruthie’s treasure, and by that she means that Or, with remarkable patience and perseverance for a girl her age, dotes on her mother as she would a child, and attempts to guide Ruthie’s life away from her habitual profession as a cheap street prostitute. Or has to juggle caring for her mother and school at the same time as working as a dishwasher to provide the family’s income. Pulling some strings with her friends, Or is able to get her mother a job as a housecleaner, which brings in a steady income but one substantially lower than tricking. The draw of the street to Ruthie seems something more than money, and her infantile and passive behavior points towards a pathological routine that to recover from requires the kind of undue attention that Or cannot provide.
Burdened with the responsibilities of a working single mother at the same time as faced with the usual teenage turmoil of high school (studying, boys, self-esteem, self-identity, etc.), Or’s amazing stand of confidence in her ability to care for her mother and maintain her lifestyle gradually erodes as her mother continually falls into past patterns of relying on the street for quick and easy money. Towards the beginning of the film, after work and on her way home, Or stops off to bum a smoke and talk to what appears to be some male friends. She and a youth pair off and go make out in the shadow of an alley. What initially looks like a moment of brief reckless passion and a return to teenage motivations sadly foreshadows the slow downslide of life and morality that Or’s mother’s dependence on “her treasure” will entail.
Keren Yedaya’s film is spare, effective, and an aesthetically consistant debut which reiterates, or, in harsher terms, provides a mere variation on, a well-worn story. With two stunning lead performances the best thing that can be said about Or
is that it is extremely watchable. This is despite the fact that from the first ten minutes on Yedaya sets up her film’s situation so thoroughly that Or
contains not a single surprise, narrative or thematic. With Elkabetz’s tragically passive bi-polar performance and Ivgi’s plucky, reticent this-is-just-a-matter-of-the-course attitude, the leads balance each other out in a way that, though one knows what will happen in a given scene, one still wants to watch the actresses to see what they do with it. Yedaya’s single-camera setups cast a sad sympathy for Or’s character, relegating to the cramped spaces, and the corners of the frame. Though systematic, this aesthetic system does not provide a fresh take on the material any more than the performances, however immersive, make Or
’s narrative one of originality.
There is, however, one large ambiguity in the film, intended or not, which provides an on-going glimmer of interest. Though Or clearly has a profound love for her mother, her mother’s feeble returned affection casts doubt on the position her daughter occupies in her life. Is Or truly Ruthie’s treasure? The journey Or begins to take at the end of the film-a paramount assumption of responsibility that at the same time degrades her life and her morals-suggests she may one day have the passive hardness of her mother. The only fresh thing in Or
is a true tragedy-calling into question the ability to see love in another.