Bonjour, Monsieur Shlomi pulls softly at heartstrings

As Cinderella stories go, the likable Israeli film “Bonjour, Monsieur Shlomi” is a kind, gentle version. The “villains” the hero overcomes may be relatively benign, but the upbeat ending is still quite satisfying.

Shlomi is a mildly alienated and perennially misunderstood Tel Aviv teenager. But, unlike the poor girl in the timeless children’s story, he’s neither tormented nor despairing.

Shlomi’s unhelpful family isn’t painted as abusive so much as self-centered. His oblivious mother is overworked, his older brother is a selfish boor and his elderly live-in grandfather, who habitually greets him with the titular French phrase, is affectionate but unhelpful.

Although neither the setup of “Bonjour, Monsieur Shlomi” nor the unfolding of its plot is especially original or remarkable, what distinguishes the film is its generosity.

“Bonjour, Monsieur Shlomi” screens Wednesday, Nov. 10, and Sunday, Nov. 14, in the San Jose Jewish Film Festival before beginning a brief theatrical run Nov. 19 at the Opera Plaza Cinemas in San Francisco.

At a time when American movies about teenagers are pageants of irony, cynicism, impossibly snappy dialogue, pop culture references and product placements, “Bonjour, Monsieur Shlomi” is vaguely reminiscent of a movie from the pre-James Dean era.

Shlomi, a good boy left to his own devices, doesn’t pursue drugs, video games, casual sex or the other usual teenage temptations. He writes a little poetry, which isn’t one of the top 10 danger signs of frustrated teenagers.

Writer-director Shemi Zarhin’s movie plays at times like an after-school special, with its low-key style, minimal production values and genial attitude. What takes it out of the realm of TV fodder is the sexual dialogue and situations, and some choice swear words.

As the movie begins, Shlomi’s rejected by a girl with whom he’d like to have more than a passing acquaintance. So we’re introduced to him as a slightly catatonic young man who’s a bit slow to react. Everyone from teachers and classmates to family members either writes him off or takes him for granted.

Around the house he does all the cleaning, laundry and cooking. He makes several terrific dishes, but he’s essentially a cute nerd who’s considered somewhat slow even by his family. All in all, Shlomi gives no sign that he’s anything special.

Until, that is, a new principal uncovers Shlomi’s prodigious math skills. Um, and a pretty girl moves in nearby and strikes up a friendship with the slowly blossoming lad.

Shlomi’s father is a Moroccan Jew, and the way in which the boy is initially underrated and overlooked could be seen as a metaphor for the second-class status of Sephardim in Israel. The social commentary is handled in such a matter-of-fact manner, however, that it will likely slip past American audiences.

“Bonjour, Monsieur Shlomi” occasionally veers into domestic drama, notably when our hero’s family obstructs his path to a future rife with possibilities, but the film is best viewed as a fable.

Those used to Hollywood fairy tales, though, will be discombobulated by the lack of music triggering the audience’s sympathies and loathing. The spare soundtrack allows characters such as Shlomi’s mother and brother to remain ambiguous — if not sympathetic — for most of the way.

“Bonjour, Monsieur Shlomi” is a feel-good movie that doesn’t engender strong reactions, but the film — and its main character — are just enough off-center to keep viewers intrigued and rooting.

“Bonjour, Monsieur Shlomi” screens 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 10, and 3 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 14, at the Camera 12 Cinemas, 201 South Second St., San Jose. Tickets: (408) 874-5907 or The film opens Friday, Nov. 19 at Landmark’s Opera Plaza Cinemas, S.F.


Sephardi boy comes of age in charming Israeli film

Michael Fox

Michael Fox is a longtime film journalist and critic, and a member of the San Francisco Bay Area Film Critics Circle. He teaches documentary classes at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute programs at U.C. Berkeley and S.F. State. In 2015, the San Francisco Film Society added Fox to Essential SF, its ongoing compendium of the Bay Area film community's most vital figures and institutions.