Film Review: S#x Acts

The central character in Jonathan Gurfinkel's fine, dry yet searing entry in the "troubled youth" genre is like that proverbial, compulsively watchable car wreck.

Gili (Sivan Levy) may be just 16 years old, but her actions are those of a much older, endlessly rapacious woman, and you can't take your eyes off her. And, it would seem, neither can the camera of talented debut director Jonathan Gurfinkel, which is trained endlessly on her as she goes through her continually desperate, horny and self-destructive motions.

Gili has just transferred schools and sends a selfie photo to the cellphone of handsome, popular Tomer (Roy Nik), who shares it with his best friend and fellow hunk, Omri (Eviatar Mor). Her actions result in her hooking up, first with the basically indifferent Tomer, and then with Omri, who strings her along as an easy outlet for his very casual sexual needs. Despite his obvious, callous treatment of her, Gili is a wholly willing victim, so intensely driven is she to be accepted by the school's cool gang.

Rona Segal's screenplay for S#x Acts doesn't offer any explanations of Gili's behavior, and like so many films dealing with disaffected, entitled youth, barely shows any of the parents in this affluent, beachfront suburb of Tel Aviv, which could be Beverly Hills or the Hamptons. Segal simply knows these kids, and the slippery, scary terrain in which they must operate on a daily basis. Surfaces are everything, and the unquenchable desire to be cool and popular is eminently palpable and explanation enough for behavior so appalling it's a wonder anyone really survives adolescence in this world of too much youthful access to possessions and sexual information. At one point, Shabat (a touching Niv Zilberberg), a cherub-faced boy who offers Gili more humanity than anyone else but is rejected by her because of his chubbiness, says, "I watch porn and think of you," and that's about as high a compliment as she can expect from anyone.

Gurfinkel, as the title suggests, subdivides his film into six parts, each featuring a different and ever more humiliating sex episode for Gili. His non-judgmental, unmelodramatic, deadpan approach is beautifully gauged, somehow creating in the viewer a grudging admiration for this unsinkable, if always wrong, valiant little warrior, trolling around the shiny streets of Tel Aviv in her come-hither black bra.  

Huge-eyed, morose-faced Levy is actually 26 and does seem a tad old to be playing a 16-year-old, but, given the vicissitudes her character puts herself through, it's no wonder she looks somewhat badly used. Such is the actress' ferocious commitment to the role that, despite her every wrong choice and the fact that she is as guilty of cruelty—as with her treatment of Shabat or her mother—as anyone else, you stay with her in full, if somewhat horrified, empathy. Gili’s life is a series of fabrications to her rich, entitled classmates about where she lives and her modes of transportation (the bus, not in cars with friends), recalling the heartbreaking, nobody's-fooled deceptions of Booth Tarkington's Alice Adams, so unforgettably portrayed by Katharine Hepburn. Her obsessive desire and quest for hot, random, near-anonymous sex—the only kind that's really offered to her—evokes both Diane Keaton in Looking for Mr. Goodbar, as well as the ravaged Françoise Lebrun in Jean Eustache's incendiary The Mother and the Whore, and it's a tribute to Levy that her performance can easily stand alongside those powerhouses. It's a toss-up as to which is more excruciating: the scene of her desperately trying to hold her own against and yet win over a clique of contemptuous, gossipy girls, or the sight of her toting around a bag of beer for the guys, who have already deserted her for another girl.

The other performances are uniformly spot-on, with Mor utterly convincing as a heartless seducer, an archetype that stretches back to oily Lowell Sherman in Way Down East, and remains killer-effective. (As if it weren't bad enough, he and the other big men on Gili's campus are surfers.) Nik is also terrific, effortlessly falling into the role of handsome Tomer, that infuriating type we all remember from high school: the guy who was just born popular and rich, and never really has to get his hands dirty.