Jellyfish sticks with you

Acclaimed fiction writers Etgar Keret and Shira Geffen’s marvelous debut feature, “Jellyfish,” is an even greater triumph than “Beaufort” and “The Band’s Visit,” the excellent Israeli films that preceded it into U.S. theaters this year.

At the same time, the Tel Aviv-set film is the least Israeli of the three, in that it could take place in any city in the world where daughters disappoint their mothers (and vice versa), where communication is fractured and frustrated, and where grand dreams have shrunk to simply getting through the day without succumbing to depression.

Tinged with surrealism yet adroitly situated just this side of absurdism, “Jellyfish” is both an ambitious and ethereal movie. From the opening shot it strikes a tone of delicacy but not fragility that is rarely achieved in movies.

“Jellyfish” simultaneously tells a trio of unconnected stories, following three women through seemingly ordinary yet pivotal junctures in their lives. Empathetic but unsentimental, pointed but never cruel, the film manages to be simultaneously urgent and dreamlike.

“Jellyfish” won the Camera d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival last year for best first feature. It premiered locally last fall at the Mill Valley Film Festival, and opens Friday, April 25, around the Bay Area.

The movie, which Geffen scripted, begins with a waifish young woman named Batya (Sarah Adler) numbly standing by as her boyfriend moves out. She seems to be in a state of shock, but we soon come to see that she is pretty much always passive and distracted.

Batya works as a waitress for a caterer, and a lengthy wedding reception presents numerous opportunities for her to be humiliated or ignored. The bride gets treated only slightly better, abandoned on the dance floor and then accidentally locked in the bathroom while a dance tune drowns out her calls for help (not that anyone seems to miss her).

Keren (Noa Knoller) and Michael (Gera Sandler) end up spending their honeymoon trapped in a nightmarish hotel barely overlooking the Mediterranean. Imprisoned, in a sense, with each other, they face their first test as newlyweds.

Meanwhile, a caretaker named Joy (Ma-nenita De Latorre) moves from one elderly client to the next, yearning to be home with her son in the Philippines and not bothering to learn more than a few words of Hebrew.

The paths of the three women occasionally cross — Batya literally runs into Joy, knocking the contents of her purse onto the sidewalk — but the filmmakers don’t overdo the coincidences. It is enough that the characters endure the same environment, one that offers neither respite from nor a cure for their malaise.

Curiously, for all the anguish on or just below the surface, “Jellyfish” is never a downer. Nor is it a morality play or an empowerment fable or a proto-feminist tragedy.

The film might be described as a postmodern slice of cake, a clever and witty approximation of a state of mind. Indeed, the state of detachment, apathy and inertia evoked in “Jellyfish” might be uniquely Israeli — facing the sea, and turning their backs to the country and its problems, the characters reject reality — but it also feels universal and of the moment.

“Jellyfish” is part of a long chain of movies that have plumbed the anonymity and callousness of the big city, and the endless opportunities for fortuitous (even coincidental) meetings that lead to friendship, love or transformation. In each of the threads of this movie’s narrative, an unrelated person becomes a catalyst for a character’s epiphany or reinvigoration.

As befits a postmodern tale, Geffen and Keret don’t wrap everything up in a happy ending with a bow. “Jellyfish” is a movie that — like a collection of short stories — asks to be decrypted, discussed and taken into one’s heart.

“Jellyfish” opens Friday, April 25 at the Lumiere Theatre in San Francisco, the Shattuck Cinemas in Berkeley, the Smith Rafael Film Center in San Rafael and the Camera Cinemas in San Jose.

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.