Israeli filmmaker Hadas Ben Aroya’s second feature film, All Eyes Off Me, offers a naturalistic glimpse into Israel’s contemporary youth culture as it shifts its focus from one main character to the next. Split into three episodes, the film follows Danny (Hadar Katz), a young woman drifting through a house party in hopes of telling her former lover that she’s pregnant; said former lover, Max (Leib Levin), who has just gotten into something resembling a relationship with Avishag (Elisheva Weil); and Avishag herself, who is looking to explore her more unorthodox sexual desires while also harboring a secret crush on an older man.
The mercurial Avishag — really the epicenter of the film’s interlinked narratives — is a dog walker in her early twenties. Directionless, she spends her time at the dog park, watching videos on a cracked phone screen, or drinking red wine and listening to records in her employer’s tastefully luxurious mansion. Her semi-romantic entanglement with Max is casual in a strained way, both of them dutifully echoing the script of romantic non-commitment that masks deeper feelings and, more importantly, deeper insecurities — “No, we’re not together,” says Max when asked about their situation. “We’ve been liking each other’s posts on Instagram for a while, and then we randomly ran into each other here and vibed.”
Jokes and shallow musings come easy to them, while they struggle with genuine intimacy and vulnerability. Danny, for all her casual chatter about getting an abortion, ultimately can’t bring herself to tell Max about her pregnancy, instead choosing to ramble on about a dying butterfly she saw on her way to the party. Even the partygoers she confides in are quick to make light of terminating a pregnancy, with one of them quipping, “I’m off to get an abortion, anyone need anything?” But when one of the guests shares her own experience with abortion, her no-big-deal demeanor devolves into an unfocused ramble that goes on for an uncomfortably long time.
A pivotal moment comes after Max confesses his bisexuality to Avishag, nervously making sure to clarify that he isn’t attracted to “manly men.” His somewhat clumsy openness prompts Avishag to make a confession of her own, as she tells him about her rough sex fantasies. The two are open and easy-going, but they mask an obvious discomfort by trying to find humor in it. But when they finally act out her fantasies, captured in unflinching detail, the encounter leaves both of them shaken, and in Avishag’s case, bruised as well. Her veneer of cool sophistication slips for the first time as she grapples with emotions that turn out to be a little more complicated than she anticipated.
Ben Aroya refrains from ever moralizing about her characters’ habits and inclinations, however, choosing to observe their behavior with a refreshing lack of judgment. When she brings up young people’s oft-discussed propensity for constantly pulling out their phones, her characters indulge the habit with a level of self-awareness that feels indicative of a deeper empathy she has for those at the heart of her film. Further, the writer-director also shows them interacting earnestly with the technology that’s become so ubiquitous in our daily lives. Far from the blank-faced passivity that members of her generation have been caricatured with, Avishag is genuinely moved to tears by a vocal performance she watches on YouTube during a quiet moment — a startlingly genuine reaction, perhaps only made possible by her solitude.
Although comparisons have been made to the work of Larry Clark, All Eyes Off Me‘s social context and the lifestyle it portrays share little in common with the bleakness that permeates Clark’s films. Ben Aroya’s long takes and naturalistic dialogue do produce a kind of intimacy which brings to mind similar moments in Ken Park or Kids, the latter being referenced, rather explicitly, via a lengthy kissing scene, complete with ASMR-inducing sound effects. But in spite of its sexual frankness, nothing in Ben Aroya’s sophomore film feels particularly lurid. Rather, her filmmaking eschews not only Clark’s conservative streak, but also the sex negativity of many (most?) of her peers. And unlike Clark’s propensity for downer endings, the film ends things on an exceptionally tender note: Avishag finding comfort in the arms of an unlikely companion, lost in thoughts and happy to let the moments pass without distraction.
Published as part of InRO Weekly — Volume 1, Issue 6.