Judge Adam Arseneau's glad that military service isn't compulsory in Toronto.
In a divided city, friendship is the last line of defense.
A teenage drama set in the shadow of terrorism, Close to Home subverts expectations as a quiet, profound tale of teenagers growing up with forced military duty. Also, it has cute teenage girls in military uniforms, which is surprisingly hot.
Facts of the Case
In a squadron of young women assigned to patrol the streets of Jerusalem, controlling the enlisted is often more challenging than the job at hand. Case in point: Smadar (Smadar Sayar), a young enlistee, spends more time smoking cigarettes, chatting with street vendors, and eyeing boys than she does on her assigned duties. Her commander partners her up with the dutiful but nervous Mirit (Naama Shendar), who eyes her partner warily, fearful of the trouble Smadar will land them in.
Their values completely at odds with each other, the two teenagers keep each other at arms length at first, but soon find themselves united in the face of adversity and tension on the ever-tense streets of Israel. Soon, each woman learns to appreciate her partner for her own merits, their friendship and admiration growing through crisis.
Now here's a new twist on the military film—one with all women and no violence. Close to Home is like a really soft, quiet, gentle and feminine version of the first half of Full Metal Jacket. You know, before Pvt. Pyle goes crazy and—and --
Okay, actually, that's a terrible comparison. Let me start again.
One thing to understand (in case you were unaware) is the concept of mandatory conscription in Israel. Every man and woman in the country is required by law to serve two to three years in the forces upon graduating high school, with very few exceptions granted. It is a way of life for the Israeli people: their parents did it, their grandparents did it, and now they have to do it. Many do not end up in combat, simply administrative or infrastructure duties. Nobody really enjoys it, but nobody really complains either—it's simply the price Israelis are expected to pay to have a country all their own in a very tumultuous part of the world.
Movies about young men enlisted into service have been done to death via every World War II and Vietnam movie over the last 50 years—ubiquitous to say the least. What makes Close To Home unique are its distinctive gendered roles. To see the same archetypes put forth from a distinctively female perspective is an altogether unique experience, since female enlistment in other countries is a small percentage at best. In this all-female squad, there is no gory combat, no trenches, no over-the-top machismo; only the menial tasks and repetition required by mandatory conscription in Israel. The teenage girls put out on the streets in uniform care little for patriotism or duty; like all other girls of the same age, their minds are preoccupied with parents, boys, clothes, and complex relationships between girlfriends. If anything, Close to Home fees like it could have been a John Hughes-style teenage drama, had it been set in Shermer, Ill., instead of Jerusalem.
Mirit and Smadar do not take upon their duty with particular patriotism or enthusiasm—they simply go through the motions because it beats the alternative of a jail cell. At the start of the film, Smadar is extremely rebellious and lackadaisical in her duties, barely mustering the enthusiasm to stand up straight, let alone perform her tasks. Mirit, on the other hand, tries her best to be a good soldier, despite the slacking of her assigned partner. The two girls find a unique friendship in one another, at first offended by the other, but eventually finding solace in the contradiction, trying to emulate the other's attitudes towards service. The two lead performances (by young actresses who have no film credits before or since) are convincingly authentic and impressive.
For a film about teenagers serving in the Israeli military, Close to Home is surprisingly neutral, at least politically. The film takes great care to stay poignantly away from all incendiary issues, merely spelling out the lifestyle of an enlisted teenager. The girls spend their days searching, inspecting, and running metal detecting wands over Arab women crossing into Jerusalem. They stop any people in the street who "look" Arab and asking them for valid identification. They express clear frustration and resentment, trying their best to cut people breaks, but end up punished for their lack of professionalism. We get no rhetoric, no politics, no sermons about righteousness or anything else; only the day-to-day reality of life in Jerusalem, good-natured but slightly on edge at all times.
This ambiguity echoes the film's eloquence and bittersweet melancholy, like a soft whisper in the wind. When Smadar and Mirit try to act proper and behave as good Israeli soldiers, they find themselves disgusted by their actions and duties that endlessly harass Arabs and enforce the status quo. When the girls try and protest, expressing teenage angst through disobedience, they are quickly reminded exactly why the status quo exists, of the harsh realities of living in such a tumultuous city as Jerusalem. Neither apologetic nor approving, Close to Home walks a thin line, embracing the dichotomy between steely resolve and forgiveness. Though it tells an entirely one-sided story from the Jewish perspective in Jerusalem, I appreciate the absence of a political soapbox; Close to Home would have been an entirely different film altogether had it given in to rhetoric and judgment in regards to the Middle East. As it stands, the film simply tells a tale, at times both happy and sad, just like life for teenage girls everywhere.
Close to Home has a clean, sharp transfer with very natural color saturation, steely grays, and mellow earth tones. Black levels are respectable, without ever being grainy. The film has a simplistic visual style, rooted in social realism with a minimum of camera trickery or special effects with plenty of moderately sized takes. The transfer is quite sharp and detailed, but sequences of fast motion led to some ghosting, possibly from PAL conversion. Only a 2.0 surround channel is included, but it is a solid presentation, with moderate bass levels, clean dialogue, and nice ambient detailing. Environmental noises are well-populated throughout left, right, and rear channels. The film is presented in its original Hebrew, and we get regular English and English SDH subtitles, as well as a Spanish option.
As for extras…yeah, well, there are none. Barest of the bare bones here.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
While it is refreshing to see a military-themed drama that doesn't actually involve anything remotely military, an obvious downside is the total lack of anything stimulating going on on-screen. I'm not saying "give me tanks" or "gigantic flesh-eating robots" or anything like that; only pointing out that not a lot goes on in Close to Home. The girls walk their patrolled strip of street, turn around, and walk back the other way. The next day, they ride a bus, taking names. The day after, back to the street, walking up and down, up and downside…
You see what I mean? It is an introspective film, and I get that and fully appreciate it for all its soft-spoken merits, but I'd be lying if I told you I wasn't checking my watch a few times.
A coming-of-age drama set in the most unlikely of locations, Close to Home is a delicate and enjoyable film. Gentle in politics and uniquely Israeli, it is worth a look for art-house aficionados or any viewers looking to expand their world view.
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