Retro gay Israeli musical fantasy hits high notes

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The old joke, dating to the 1970s, was that Israeli pop culture was 10 to 15 years behind American trends and tastes.

But that lag has largely evaporated in recent years, a consequence of young Israelis traveling abroad in large numbers, and a thingamajig called the Internet.

In fact, Israel now successfully exports its entertainment ideas, notably to American television networks. HBO’s “In Treatment” and Fox’s new “Traffic Light” are adaptations of original Israeli shows, and NBC is reportedly developing an Americanized version of “Pillars of Smoke.”

Ido Rosenberg as drag queen Mary Lou

So one has the weird feeling of being caught in a time warp watching the new film “Mary Lou,” a giddy and poignant musical fantasy helmed by renowned gay director Eytan Fox (“Walk On Water,” “The Bubble”) that was featured at the recent S.F. Jewish Film Festival.

Everything about this colorful foray into family regrets, drag performance and unrequited love feels retro — which is part of its charm, admittedly, but also poses a test to one’s equanimity.

Then again, not to be too condescending, “Mary Lou” may seem less quaint to viewers who haven’t been exposed to the kind of path-breaking, taboo-shattering queer films that San Francisco and other urban audiences are used to.

Made last year for Israeli television and aired in four episodes, “Mary Lou” is being released in the United States as a discrete 21⁄2-hour movie.

The plot is set in motion at Meir’s 10th birthday party somewhere in northern Israel, when his mother departs abruptly with a suitcase, never to be seen again. Meir consoles himself, the next day and all the way through adolescence and his teenage years, by telling himself that she ran off to fulfill her dream of singing with the Israeli pop star Svika Pick.

What really jump-starts “Mary Lou,” even before Miriam runs away, is the first of dozens of Pick songs that Meir or other cast members enthusiastically (or self pityingly, when the situation and lyrics call for it) belt out, typically accompanied by campy choreography and glitzy costumes.

I didn’t know Pick’s music beforehand, and I confess I am not a fan now. Aside from a couple of catchy melodies and one or two touching choruses, I found his songs to be overwrought anthems to failed love affairs. Your mileage may vary, of course.

Meir is perfectly aware that he’s gay, although he doesn’t have a boyfriend. His BFF through high school is a straight girl, Shuli, who’s equally uninterested in the immature boys who are always making a play for her.

Then she falls hard for Gabriel, a new guy with a square jaw and great basketball skills. Meir develops his own crush on Gabriel, and his jealousy leads not only to a break with Shuli but a self-indulgent, self-destructive performance at the talent show on graduation night.

It’s time to grow up and forge his own way, so Meir splits for Tel Aviv, where he’s adopted by a group of drag queens who perform nightly at a popular club. It’s not giving anything away to reveal that Meir ends up joining the troupe, adopting the stage name “Mary Lou,” and finding his artistic outlet and his audience.

Meir thinks he’s looking for his mother, but he’s actually looking for himself. But you knew that too.

To criticize “Mary Lou” for being predictable is to miss the point, I readily admit, for that’s the nature of fairy tales. What’s important, in this as in all fables, is the main character’s brave, risky journey to face and accept the truth.

That’s a timeless tale, regardless of sexual orientation, language or wig color. This one just feels a tad old-fashioned.

“Mary Lou” runs Sept. 17-21 at the Castro Theatre in San Francisco.

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.