Film Review: Off White Lies

Nominated for seven Israeli Academy Awards, this drama about a down-and-out father and daughter conning their way into a comfortable home mixes road-movie and melodramatic family-dysfunction elements into a not wholly satisfying whole.

First-time filmmaker Maya Kenig’s Off White Lies shares both a similar name with last summer’s French disappointment Little White Lies and a collection of characters that filmgoers may not enjoy spending time with. But situations here are believable, some of the on-the-road footage pleases, and there’s an occasional twist to kindle some interest.

The story is a modest spin on the art of the con. Thirteen-year-old Libby (Elya Inbar), whose parents have been long separated, arrives in Israel in 2006 as the second Lebanese war picks up steam. Encouraged by her misinformed, California-based mother, with whom she’s been living, to spend time with her estranged father Shaul (Gur Bentwich), Libby quickly discovers that he does not have the home, job or funds he had claimed.

What Shaul does have, besides his cigarette habit and other loser qualities, are nerve and imagination. He is the dogged, serial inventor of dumb, failed gadgets such as the “smoker” that makes annoying cigarette smoke disappear (sometimes), a condom that doesn’t have the stigma of a condom, and a phony pile of feces in which to hide house keys in plain sight. (One of these, in fact, might show promise.)

He’s also a serial inventor of lies, which he calls “white.” Libby, however, anoints the film’s title as she clarifies that his are “off-white lies.” She also reveals that this lemon of an offspring doesn’t fall far from the lemon tree as she gamely joins in on his latest charade that will, thanks to his bullshit artistry, secure them better quarters than the cockroach-infested homeless shelter they flee.

With nothing besides his car, a storage garage where he retrieves home movies, and now Libby in his care, Shaul concocts a plan that has the pair hitting the road and soon passing themselves off as refugees from Israel’s north who are being battered by the fighting in Lebanon. (Short bursts of TV reportage convey the war’s reality.) How convenient for the father-daughter duo that Israelis in the safe zones have been encouraged to welcome such refugees.

Shaul and Libby easily land in the very comfortable home of Gidi (Tzahi Grad) and Helit (Salit Achi-Miriam), a well-off couple whom Shaul, abetted by his daughter’s lies, convinces of their flight from a missile-torn northern town. Gidi and Helit also (conveniently) have an open relationship, a situation that Shaul leverages when Gidi is briefly called to military duty. And Libby soon begins a flirtation with Yuval (Arad Yeini), the couple’s 18-year-old son on sick leave from Army duty. On the professional front, Shaul actually interests Gidi in his smoker gizmo, which Libby has renamed the “Smokeless.”

Complications and maybe exposure of the charade arise after Gidi proposes an infomercial shoot for the gadget in what Shaul claims is the town he and daughter fled. There’s a nice twist at the end, but not enough to save the whole enterprise.

Press notes for Off White Lies, which has a nice look, prefer to call the Shaul character “an infantile eccentric,” although many filmgoers might feel “flat-out loser” more appropriate. Inbar’s Libby, not enlivened by suggestions of anger and rebellion, is utterly charmless and uncharismatic and never betrays an ounce of intelligence. Even the most reprehensible of main characters (Lolita and Norman Bates, among many in big and small films, immediately come to mind) betray a sparkle of interest and intrigue now and then. Here, either the filmmaker or script or both did not bother.