John Benjamin Hickey is one of those great actors whose name you might not recognize, but you’ll likely recognize his face immediately from dozens of film and TV roles (he’s won a Tony and an Emmy, for your information), even though he’s rarely the lead in whatever it is he’s in. Thankfully, director/co-writer Eytan Fox (the New York-born, Israeli-raised filmmaker of Yossi & Jagger and Walk on Water) recognized Hickey’s worth and talent and cast him as Michael in his latest work, Sublet, about a New York Times travel writer who goes to Tel Aviv for a week to do a piece on capturing the essence of the city without only doing touristy things. Michael has sublet an apartment in one of the hippest neighborhood from Tomer (Niv Nissim), a young gay film student who thankfully agrees to show his renter the real Tel Aviv.
But unlike travelogue films pretending to be character studies, Sublet actually seems to care more about getting into the headspace of its two lead characters than getting to know the city. Sublet acknowledges the fact that sometimes it’s easier to talk intimately with complete strangers, and during the course of their conversations, we learn about Michael’s husband back in New York and the recent failed attempt to have a baby via a surrogate (the child died shortly after birth), a devastating incident from which Michael still hasn’t fully recovered. We also learn he wrote a book a couple decades earlier about being gay in New York in the 1980s as AIDS was running mercilessly through his community. He lost a partner to the disease, so unexpected loss seems to haunt Michael wherever he goes. Michael’s only other time in Israel was for his bar mitzvah, but shortly after that, his parents got divorced, so it’s a period in his life he associates with fighting and pain.
Tomer is a little easier to figure out: he’s broke most of the time, has a lot of casual sex, and is a promising film student who makes movies that he believes defy categorization (they’re horror movies, let’s be real). He opens Michael’s eyes to the idea of dating apps, modern dance, the club scene of Tel Aviv, and yes, even some of the more expected places like cafes and restaurants. We also learn that Tomer is close with his mother, who we meet near the end of the film and discover where her son gets his generous, inviting nature. There are a few lifestyle stumbling blocks between this unlikely pair, but Michael is there more to observe than judge. And despite promises made, they will likely never see each other again; but that doesn’t keep us from enjoying the time we do get to spend with them.
But what we really notice here is how Michael begins to remember and unlock parts of himself that have long been dormant because of Tomer’s influence, reminding him that life is meant to be actively lived and not simply settled into. It’s a subtle yet beautiful life adjustment (not even big enough to be considered a transformation), and Michael seems to get a genuine lift from his time with Tomer.
It’s difficult to watch this story set in an idealized Tel Aviv and not think of the recent bombings that sent so many to shelters and killed others, so maybe Sublet is better seen as a memory of more peaceful times. However you choose to view it, it’s a gentle, funny, moving work about a temporary but useful friendship, and sometimes that’s all one needs.
The film opens Friday in select theaters, including the Landmark Century Centre Cinema.
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