Arriving in Tel Aviv, Michael Green (John Benjamin Hickey), a 56-year-old American travel writer, finds the apartment he’s arranged to sublet still occupied by its owner, Tomer (Niv Nissim), a 20-something student and budding filmmaker. Tomer and his friends shoot scary movies in his apartment and the cluttered, disorganized space is clearly a bit of a horror to the buttoned-up Michael, who decides to go find a hotel. Alarmed, Tomer grabs a bottle of cleanser and begins using his feet to scrub a towel across the floor before admitting that he really needs Michael’s sublet cash. Travel weary and charmed by this handsome gay man, Michael agrees to stay.
Sublet is the first film in seven years from the New York born, Israel raised writer-director Eytan Fox, whose 2002 debut feature, Yossi & Jagger was a sensation the world over. Detailing a love affair between two men in the Israeli Army, it remains a daring and much-admired film. In subsequent movies, including the excellent Walk on Water and The Bubble, Fox has continued to draw nuanced performances from first-time actors, while clearly drawing inspiration from Tel Aviv’s youth, many of whom prioritize sexual freedom and personal expression over politics and tradition.
When it becomes clear that Tomer doesn’t have another place to stay, Michael invites him to sleep on the sofa. Equating Michael’s sight-seeing itinerary to “a Jewish princess on her birthright tour,” Tomer begins showing Michael the city, and eventually takes him to meet his mother (Miki Kam) at a kibbutz in the countryside. It is there that the tightly-held Michael will reveal the recent trauma that’s led to a depression he’s done a poor job of concealing.
Michael’s reality, in which the pains of the near yet distant past lay against nearly every moment of his present, runs counter to Tomer’s insistence that life be sex-filled and complication free. He’s young, in other words, and Fox and co-writer Itay Segal have fashioned for Hickey and Nissim —a consummate pro and a gifted newcomer — a series of conversations that lay out the classic generational divide. Typically cavalier, Tomer dismisses AIDS out of hand (“It’s so depressing. Why does everything always have to go back to that?”) only to be left speechless when Michael tells him he lost his first boyfriend to the disease.
Despite their continuing debates, it’s in their silences that the two men ignite change in one another. Tomer’s kindness loosens the knot within Michael, while the visiting writer’s soulful presence appears to move Tomer to feel more deeply than he usually allows. Like Michael himself, Sublet is almost painfully restrained — you might long for a stirring speech or two by the end, but both men would surely hate such a thing. Real friends don’t need speeches.
Sublet is screening at Laemmle Theaters in Los Angeles.