The Arty Semite

Friday Film: Too Much Shop Talk

By Schuyler Velasco

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Liron Ben-Chelouche in ‘Maya.’

The craft of acting, like writing, is a very difficult thing to talk about without sounding like a dallying idiot. Perversely, it’s also one of the hardest topics to stop talking about once you’ve started, since it’s rife with irresolvable quandaries about “intent,” “truth,” and the nature of Little Red Riding Hood’s relationship with her mother. Like all shop talk, it’s a conversation that gets tiresome very quickly for the non-actors in the room.

Such is the problem with “Maya,” the latest effort from director Michal Bat Adam, which screened at the Boston Jewish Film Festival in November and returns at the Atlanta Jewish Film Festival February 13 and 21. This movie can’t stop talking about acting, but it doesn’t know how to do so without sounding like a frustrated high school drama teacher who’s being a little bit condescending. Thus we get helpful tidbits like, “It has to be more real for you”; “You’ve to choose if you want drama or truth”; and my personal favorite, “Acting is not just reciting words from memory.” Yikes.

The story wedged in around all of this performance philosophy centers around the title character (Liron Ben-Chelouche), a struggling actress (though her “struggles” — contemplating quitting acting after mildly negative feedback from an instructor; pounding the pavement for a scant couple of months — would get major eyerolls from all but the luckiest working actors) who lands the lead role in celebrated director Hagai’s new play. Hagai (Gil Frank) suggests she research her role as a girl driven mad by her parents who are forcing her to have an abortion, by spending a few days with patients in a mental institution. As Maya dives deeper and deeper into her role, she and the director, with whom she’s (of course) begun to have an affair, clash over the issue of veracity versus flashiness: He wants her to run across the stage yelling, to make it more “dramatic”; she points out that she wouldn’t be able to run, because she’s so heavily medicated. It’s a contrast that isn’t mutually exclusive, but that tension constitutes the bulk of the drama in the film. As the curtain rises on opening night, the big question is whether Maya (who is outrageously petulant for a young performer getting her first big break) will stick to the script and direction of her beloved mentor, or follow her blossoming instincts and deliver a uniquely truthful, absorbing performance.

The play itself doesn’t nearly live up to its billing, but plays within movies, especially serious ones, rarely do. The best moments in the film are far away from the stage, when Maya is visiting the mental hospital or having dinner with her large, supportive family (complete with a quirky, less-senile-than-you-think grandfather). When she’s not acting like she’s acting, or engaging in her somewhat squirm-inducing love affair, Maya is just fine. Her character has all the frustrating insolence and wide-eyed excitement that young ingénues should have, delivered in an unaffected, non-clichéd manner that makes the film watchable by proxy. The actors who play the patients Maya befriends in the mental hospital deliver some of the best performances in the film, particularly those of a troubled Israeli soldier haunted by memories of the army’s treatment of Arab prisoners, and an affable hulk who thinks he’s a heart surgeon. It’s totally unbelievable when this unstable, potentially violent group shows up sitting politely in the front row of Maya’s play on opening night, but it’s great to see them nonetheless.

Watch the trailer for ‘Maya’:


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