Film Review: Is That You?

Despite potential pitfalls, 'Is That You?' is a delightful and nostalgic road-trip romance that explores the road not taken.
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Is That You? is schematic and implausible but utterly captivating: It’s quirky, elegiac, sad and laugh-out-loud funny.

Sixty-year-old Israeli projectionist Ronnie (Alon Aboutboul) decides to track down his lost love Rachel (Suzanne Sadler), who lives in America (somewhere in the Syracuse, New York area), after he is abruptly fired from his long-term gig. And so off he goes with her last address in hand. One Rachel-free house leads to another, but he persists. Along the way, he picks up 20-year-old film student Myla (Naruna Kaplan de Macedo), who is making a low-budget (very low-budget) documentary about “regret.” How perfect is that.

They meet cute. When his car stalls, she surfaces willing to help and promptly interviews him about his regrets. Naturally, he finds her an irritant but, unable to make the necessary auto repairs, within short order they are in her car driving through the countryside tracking down Rachel as the inevitable bond between them grows.

Myla views Ronnie’s journey as the framework for her movie, with each poor soul they encounter on their trip yet another potential interviewee. As it turns out, everyone is eager to unload (privacy has no currency). Most of the regret stories are pretty routine—e.g., the girl that got away, disappointing marriages, and plain old paralyzing inertia. A few recollections are more pointed, including a late-in-life out-of-the-closet lesbian who regrets wasting so much time living a lie. And then there’s a hilarious interview with the artistically frustrated cop who stops them on the road for a traffic violation. It doesn’t take too much arm-twisting for him to reveal his unrealized dream as he sings Italian opera at the top of his lungs, emoting and gesticulating away for the rolling camera.

The climax, of course, is Ronnie’s meeting with Rachel, and it’s wonderful. Contrary to expectations, Rachel (Suzanne Sadler) is no aging, frumpy disappointment. She’s a 60-year-old woman who still has “it,” at least in Ronnie’s eyes, and therein lies the ache. Decades down the road, his feelings have not changed.

Is That You? is a valentine to Hollywood’s most romantic traditions, not least the road trip, and there’s even a scene early on of An Affair to Remember featuring the forever-glamorous Deborah Kerr and Cary Grant promising to meet each other on the deck of the Empire State Building in six months, no matter what happens.

The film is also a charming self-referential tribute to indies, documentaries and all their players. Remember, Ronnie is a projectionist, Myla a filmmaker. Snippets of her grainy interviews (shot with a shaky handheld camera) are interspersed throughout. Admittedly, her regret theme mirroring the larger narrative is none too subtle. Still, it makes for a poignant backdrop with its Chekhovian comic elements.

In less skillful hands, the film could have quickly become annoying and pretentious. But director Dani Menkin has a light touch. There’s almost an unabashed innocence at play as he explores life’s events that are random, inescapable and often absurd.

He’s equally deft at handling the bilingual aspects. Though this is an Israeli film, English is what’s largely spoken, which makes perfect sense given the American locale where the bulk of the action is shot. Ronnie would know English. Yet conversations with his New York-based brother are in Hebrew (with a few English words thrown in) and subtitles accompany these bits of dialogue. It all flows seamlessly.

Cinematographer Bruce Francis Cole does a fine job too capturing the long, flat stretches of suburban sprawl that have seen better days yet still embody a poetic aesthetic. America is both literal place and metaphor. It’s where you go to meet your destiny. Cole’s long and wide-angled shots bring to mind other films and at the same time they’re original, a reflection of this movie’s off-the-beaten-track mood and tone.

The casting is spot-on. Aboutboul’s Ronnie evokes a melancholy, unremarkable life that he’s learned to live with. Kaplan de Macedo is fully believable as the filmmaking enthusiast grappling with her own private demons, while Sadler makes palpable a woman who is not unhappy with her choices, though luckless circumstances having nothing to do with choice are something else.

Is That You? is a small gem that has already won Best Indie Film from the Israeli Academy and received lots of critical acclaim on the festival circuit. Still, this one could fall through the cracks. Hopefully, it will find the wider audience it deserves.

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