It's hard to think of a social issue more certain to drive people into blinkered encampment than the question of sexual consent. There are times when "no means no" seems like an incomplete response to an enormously touchy problem — especially as it affects teenagers, a demographic not known for prudent lust management.
Yet the title alone of S#x Acts, a new Israeli drama about the ambiguity of sexual consent, tosses off multiple meanings for audiences to chew on. Only minutes into this smart, nervy movie, that title may strike you as a slightly coy gambit for a film whose explicit carnality borders — if defensibly — on the pornographic. That hashtag gestures at the ways in which teen sex slips casually into a smartphone-powered public domain. And the movie unfolds in six acts, each one advancing the progressive degradation of a vulnerable girl seeking acceptance.
Sixteen-year-old Gili Shulman (an astoundingly good Sivan Levy) has switched to a high school in a pricey Israeli suburb. Less affluent than her classmates and hungry for peer approval, Gili dispenses sexual favors pretty much on demand, especially when those demands come from handsome, cocky Omri (Eviatar Mor), a rich party animal with a voyeur's kinky appetites and a pimp's managerial flair.
Omri, a master manipulator, knows how to bully and flatter Gili into a state of permanent uncertainty about where she stands in his affections. Soon she finds herself at the mercy of several other horny boys, each of whom exploits her in his own way.
But here's the knotty part: Not one of those boys is a monster, and Gili could legitimately appear, especially to another teenager, to be an accomplice in her own debasement. When she says no, it's in a devastating whisper that has nothing to do with "asking for it." She's confused, doesn't understand the difference between need and love; she brags of her exploits to the perfectly groomed girls whose friendship she craves, and hides her longing for Omri's attention behind halting boasts that what they have is only sex for kicks.
A thousand TV movies have asked what counts as rape, and who's to blame; to the degree that S#x Acts asks at all, the query is intentionally oblique. Parents are sketched in just enough to show that they're off in the clouds of moneymaking. Class and ethnic disparities may play a role, or not.
Tautly written by Rona Segal and expertly observed by Jonathan Gurfinkel, a documentarian and TV producer who worked on the hilarious Israeli satire Eretz Nehederet, S#x Acts operates almost exclusively at the behavioral level. Suspended between titillation and despair, the movie firmly implicates us in its voyeurism. Does Gurfinkel enjoy the degradation a little too much? Do we? Certainly it's hard to leave the theater without feeling soiled on Gili's behalf — and in a way, on her tormentors' as well.
Far from being cynical, S#x Acts raises an alarm while demonizing no one. Manipulative Omri is pretty hard to like, but it's not hard to understand the pull he exerts on Gili. Each of the other boys has his own appeal, plus his own insecurities and doubts about what he's doing. A chubby boy takes his turn with Gili, then shows her kindness, which she rewards with the same cavalier rejection she's suffered at the hands of his friends.
This emotional mess is further complicated at the end, when an adult offers Gili a ride home from a pool party where she's endured yet another humiliation. By then our hearts have gone out to Gili — and to the boys who will forever have to reckon with what they've done to her. (Recommended)