When I’m in “count your blessings” mode, I can admit that one of the good things to come from this seemingly interminable pandemic has been that I have more time to watch Netflix. That’s where I discovered the Israeli actress Shira Haas, who played the central character in the miniseries Unorthodox, and featured as one member of a large ensemble cast in the television series Shtisel. Of course, she’s done more than that, but those two shows are easily available to watch in the United States. Anyway, when I saw she was one of the stars of Asia, the debut feature of director Ruthy Pribar, I had to see it.
I was not disappointed. Asia is basically a two-hander about the relationship of a mother and daughter, and how the dynamics of their relationship changes due to the daughter’s medical condition. Asia (Alena Yiv) is a single mother who emigrated to Israel from Russia with her daughter Vika (Haas), and both have found their places in Israeli society—Asia works as a nurse, while seventeen-year-old Vika is busy living the life of a rebellious teenager, hanging out with her skater pals and experimenting with alcohol and drugs. Vika has a degenerative muscle disease which occasionally causes her trouble—as when she’s admitted to the hospital after her prescribed drugs interact with her street drugs—but, like a typical teenager, she fiercely asserts her right to make her own mistakes, no matter how much worry it causes her mother.
When we first meet Asia and Vika, they seem more like peers than mother and daughter, and are even mistaken for the latter once. Despite being 35, Asia she seems a bit trapped in adolescence herself—she has no taste for laying down the law with her daughter, and persists in drinking too much and having sex in cars (seriously—that isn’t even fun when you really are a teenager). Then Vika’s health takes a serious turn for the worse, and Asia has to step up and be the mother her daughter has always needed. Sick children are a staple of tear-jerking movies—I’m looking at you, The Fault in Our Stars—but Asia manages to avoid the clichés and present a view both more realistic and more heartfelt than the typical film of this type. I’m particularly impressed with how Pribar, who also wrote the screenplay, chose to end this film.
Yiv is great, as is a supporting cast including Gera Sandler and Tamir Mula, but the real standout for me is Haas’ performance as a young person who exudes a kind of steely determination that could be mistaken for oppositional behavior, but is really based on having a strong sense of self and being true to it. Asia scooped up three prizes at the Tribeca Film Festival—Best Actress (Haas), Best Cinematography (Daniella Nowitz), and the Nora Ephron Prize (Pribar)—and if there’s any justice, it has more wins in the future. | Sarah Boslaugh
Asia is available for home viewing in Missouri and Illinois from Nov. 6-8 as part of the Saint Louis International Film Festival. You can purchase tickets ($10 general, $8 for Cinema St. Louis members) here. Further information about SLIFF, including a complete list of films available and viewing options, is also available from the festival web site.