Audience-grabbing Israeli film packs emotional wallop

“Wedding Doll,” the full-length feature debut from successful Israeli documentary filmmaker Nitzan Gilady, accomplishes the rare trick of getting the viewer to identify with and root for characters with conflicting goals: a buoyant young woman determined to stretch her wings no matter what, and a parent consumed with protecting her child.

Gilady gives each character ample opportunity to express her primal drive and doesn’t pick a side. As a result, the film exerts an irresistible emotional pull while steadily ratcheting up the stakes and tension.

The relationship between mother Sara and daughter Hagit is at the crux of “Wedding Doll.” photo/outsider pictures

Named the best debut feature at the 2015 Jerusalem Film Festival and a crowd-pleaser at last year’s Toronto Film Festival, “Wedding Doll” opens Friday, July 1 in San Francisco and San Rafael. It was nominated for nine Israeli Oscars, including best film, best director, best actor (Roy Assaf), best actress (Moran Rosenblatt) and best supporting actress (Asi Levy), though the only wins went to Rosenblatt and costume design.

Mother Sara and daughter Hagit live in an unceasing, ebb-and-flow, strained equilibrium of negotiation, argument and parental proclamation. While there’s no shortage of love or affection, the prevalent dynamic is Sara buffering her willful child from the dangers of the world while the 24-year-old Hagit (an endearing Rosenblatt) asserts her independence.

This may sound like a too-familiar story, but there’s a kicker: Hagit has a mild mental disability and can’t accurately gauge risks to her safety. Just as crucial, she’s unable to differentiate her dreams and illusions from the real world.

It’s this latter condition, which manifests itself as an unfair fight between Hagit’s innocence and other people’s cruelty, that the exhausted Sara (Levy) finds increasingly unable to manage.

Gilady, known for directing the documentaries “The Last Enemy” (1999), “In Satmar Custody” (2003) and “Jerusalem is Proud to Present” (2008), sets his first long feature in an unpopulated town in the middle of nowhere (the Negev, to be exact), where Hagit presumably faces fewer threats. But bullies are everywhere, even in a place as remote as this, and they have a talent for tormenting the vulnerable.

Hagit takes pleasure in the landscapes and vistas, but we readily discern the harsh irony in her furious desire for freedom amid all this open space: She’s not allowed to go anywhere without her mother.

The lone exception is the toilet-paper factory where Hagit has worked for years, and where she is in love with the owner’s son (Assaf). However, the small, family-run operation is in the process of closing down, so her world is about to shrink even as she’s clamoring for greater autonomy.

“Wedding Doll” isn’t a message film. It evinces no point of view about the availability of social services or the economic prospects of southern Israel. The movie’s driving forces — the mother-daughter dynamic and the inclination by some to take advantage of Hagit — are presented as universal and ubiquitous.

At its core, and at its best, “Wedding Doll” is a film about people trying to do the best they can under tough circumstances, and ultimately having no one they can depend on but each other.

Indeed, we’re so engaged with Hagit and Sara’s plight that the flurry of plot contrivances in the late going hardly matters. “Wedding Doll” makes no bones about playing on the audience’s empathy, but it has the integrity not to generate cheap shocks and cheap shots from the chronic world shortage of human kindness.

“Wedding Doll” opens Friday, July 1 at the Roxie in San Francisco and the Smith Rafael Film Center in San Rafael. In Hebrew and English with English subtitles (Not rated, 82 minutes).

Michael Fox

Michael Fox is a longtime film journalist and critic, and a member of the San Francisco Film Critics Circle. He is the curator and host of the CinemaLit film series at the Mechanics’ Institute and teaches documentary classes at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute programs at U.C. Berkeley and S.F. State. In 2015, the San Francisco Film Society added Fox to Essential SF, its ongoing compendium of the Bay Area film community's most vital figures and institutions.