On the surface, Zero Motivation looks like a military satire. But this dark comic gem, the debut feature from Israeli writer-director Talya Lavie, is really a stinging workplace comedy, about the doom, gloom, and cluelessness of a small female administrative staff working at an Israeli army outpost. To many of the girls, their assignment is like a two-year jail sentence. They’re filing papers and preparing snacks for the higher-ups during the day, bunking in close quarters at night, all while trying to stay sane and mature into women in their own ways.
Lavie’s first task, and one she does very well, is introducing the lead players. They are an instant hit, entertaining and likable, making it easy to get involved with Zero Motivation right from the start. Zohar (Dana Igby) is the film’s title come to life, a lazy, backtalking badass whose greatest accomplishment is holding the office record at Minesweeper. Her best pal, Daffi (Nelly Tagar), is a bafflingly bad secretary who senses that a long-anticipated transfer to the big city is just moments away. Their work ethic is horrible, and their friendship is endearing.
Throughout Lavie’s triptych of stories, Zohar and Daffi’s friendship is seriously tested. Yours would be too if you were dealing with unwanted virginity, a gruesome suicide, and a by-the-books commanding officer. Dividing the narrative into three stories is engaging but almost superfluous, as Zero Motivation has an effective, connected flow that never works too hard. If anything, the device helps divert focus to one character within the larger ensemble, but it isn’t necessary.
When Zero Motivation highlights the girls’ pervasive ennui and restlessness, the film is at its strongest. Lavie has a dry, effortless wit as a director, framing Zohar between two computer monitors or behind stacks of binders – Igby plays the part perfectly, a study in young-adult boredom, with a little rigidity present just long enough to piss off her ambitious boss (Shani Klein). When Zohar finally has something to get excited about, Lavie’s script throws in hurdle after hurdle, a witty exercise in futility with a touch of shock value.
For the most part, the men in Lavie’s film are inconsequential, insensitive, or flat-out dickheads. The physical environment is tight, limiting. And forget combat, it’s not part of the equation. Lavie prefers we spend all our emotional focus and energy on the ladies, and it works. Even when the story turns toward an unlikely character, the script and fine performances have us really pulling for her, someone we may not have expected to empathize with. We end up not only rooting for each girl, but defending all women in general.
But if there’s anything Lavie loves more than her characters, it’s irony. Painful, Twilight Zone-worthy irony, served cold. It’s an affinity that adds another layer of dark humor to Zero Motivation. Hard work isn’t rewarded. The best laid plans are upended. Perhaps Lavie is commenting that entering into womanhood by spending two years in the army may not be conducive to good living for many. At least Zohar, Daffi, and friends have each other, glimmers of hope, and the next round of Minesweeper.