In the first scene of Tayla Lavie’s dark comedy, Zero Motivation, two young women, Zohar and Daffi, board a bus. They settle in beside each other, tuck one earbud each from a shared pair into their ears, cuddle under a blanket, and doze with their heads leaned together. They look like girls on a bus to summer camp, except they’re wearing army fatigues.
Zero Motivation is a film about young women suffering through their mandatory military service on a remote army base in the desert. Lavie grafts the boredom of office work onto the bureaucracy of army life: rather than engage in combat, her characters’ eyes glaze over games of Minesweeper. Zohar and Daffi work in human resources, Zohar responsible for sorting the mail and Daffi designated as the office’s paper shredder. Their most important responsibility is serving coffee to each of the officers just how he likes it.
Daffi is teary in her misery, and Zohar, made from more stubborn stuff, helps her friend devise a plan: they spend their days drafting overwrought letters about Daffi’s mental health and sensitive constitution to the army’s chief of staff, asking for her to be transferred to the milder climes of Tel Aviv. Daffi convinces herself that someone will take interest in her misery and rescue her. But her desperation and, eventually, her determination to leave wounds Zohar, who thinks that real friends stick together.
The film’s drama turns around the delusions of these two wayward soldiers and of their supervisor, an officer named Rama who wants to make her career in the military. Daffi truly believes that the IDF will indulge her preferences: when a young woman who appears to be a new recruit shows up on the base, Daffi blithely steers her into training as her replacement. The consequences of her self-involved delusions are catastrophic.
Lavie doesn’t shy away from juxtaposing the grave with the absurd. A real and bloody suicide on the base is followed by Daffi’s threats to kill herself with office supplies. She complains that there isn’t even White-Out for her to drink and so her office-mate passes her a new bottle. A sexual assault is interrupted with an M-16 and then a power struggle devolves into a staple-gun fight. Daffi undertakes arduous officer training in the hope that her experience will land her a spot in Tel Aviv; when it doesn’t, and she cries over her reassignment to the same shabby base, her fellow officers scold her for her petty concerns while soldiers are dying. They’re not wrong, but they are still teenagers trying to make another teenager realize how blinkered she is. It’s hard to tell whose self-importance Lavie finds more laughable.
Ultimately Lavie seeks to keep it light. She focuses on the usual social pressures that exist in tight quarters: there are the girly girls who sing in harmony, primp in front of the mirror, and mock Zohar and Daffi for their dreamy ways and childish games. Some of this is typical adolescent stuff—Zohar frets about being the only virgin in her bunk, perhaps on the base—but some of it speaks to real class and social divisions in Israeli society. Everyone teases Zohar because she is from a kibbutz, not least Irena, a Russian immigrant who Zohar skewers in return. Lavie, who is touted in the film’s press materials as an Israeli Lena Dunham, reminds us that, for those doing mandatory service in the IDF, this is a largely adolescent scene, replete with overactive hormones, romantic rivalries, and cliques. It just so happens that often, because this is a country with mandatory military service, the teenagers flirt and rage with M-16s draped over their shoulders.
Zero Motivation is screening at Film Forum in New York City through Dec. 15.
Anna Altman is a writer living in Brooklyn.