Israeli film embraces transgender teen, stunned parents

Doron Eran’s empathetic and touching drama “Melting Away” may be the first Israeli feature film about parents coming to terms with a transgendered child. It begins with a poignant confession.

“No one tells you what it means to be a good mother — if it’s being the mother my son wants me to be, or the mother I think he needs,” a 40-something woman sadly confides to us, before we realize that she is speaking to, of all people, a private detective.

Between their conversation and a succinct, effective flashback, we learn that Galya and her self-made, my-way-or-the-highway husband, Shlomo, locked their teenage son Assaf out of the house four years ago when they discovered his stash of women’s clothing.

Hen Yanni in “Melting Away”

They expected he would return in a few days, start seeing a therapist, and his gender issues would disappear. In fact, Assaf disappeared without a word.

Now Shlomo’s been diagnosed with terminal cancer and Galya wants the private eye to find Assaf. That mission is accomplished with ease, but with a twist: Assaf is now Anna, and her night job is singing in a drag club.

Once upon a time in movies, this would have comprised the climax. The film would have been about an outsider making his/her own way, and finding the new identity to be a mixed but positive blessing. Somewhat surprisingly, Anna’s secret is revealed to the audience — though not to Galya, thanks to the private eye’s tactfulness and his compliance with Anna’s wishes — in the first 15 minutes, setting the stage for a less sensationalistic story of gradual rapprochement between child and parents.

Call it the new normal.

“Melting Away,” which played this year’s East Bay International Jewish Film Festival and others across the U.S. and internationally, has its San Francisco premiere Sunday, June 23 at the Roxie, as part of Frameline37, the San Francisco International Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Film Festival.

The filmmaker and his partner and screenwriter, Billy Ben-Moshe, reportedly were inspired by the aftermath of the 2009 shooting attack at the Israel Gay Youth Organization in Tel Aviv that left two dead. Some parents, presumably shocked to learn that their children weren’t straight, declined to visit them in the hospital.

As part of its contribution toward tolerance and acceptance, “Melting Away” has no interest in providing a forum for hate speech. When Anna’s family discovers the truth, they are understandably stunned but don’t spew homophobic insults.

The 2011 film operates from the perspective that it’s not Anna’s problem that Galya and Shlomo need to adjust to having a daughter in lieu of a son. It’s their issue, and they have to work through it themselves.

There are moments where “Melting Away” feels like a TV movie, thanks to a limp score and a couple of weak fades to black. Likewise, the film’s emphasis on the positive, although a welcome change of pace from the bitterness and bile that’s often deemed necessary in a story like this, robs it of a degree of narrative tension and slam-bang ending.

That said, “Melting Away” is a satisfying, uplifting movie that succeeds on the basis of consistently solid acting that builds and honors our emotional investment in the characters’ destinies.

Hen Yanni conveys Anna’s toughness and sensitivity with-out evoking stereotypes, al-though we’re puzzled why she’s so quick to forgive her father. Limor Goldstein infuses the dying Shlomo with gravitas, vulnerability and love.

The title refers to a song Anna performs near the end of the film, but also alludes to the difficult and often painful process of dissolving the prejudices, expectations and resentments that stand between parents and children.

Frameline37, which runs through June 30, also presents Michael Mayer’s Israeli-Palestinian love story, “Out in the Dark,” at 9:30 p.m. June 28 at the Castro.

Local Jewish filmmakers Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman’s documentary featurette, “The Battle of amfAR,” which screens at 4:30 p.m. Wednesday, June 26 at the Castro, traces the efforts of Elizabeth Taylor and Dr. Mathilde Krim, a scientist and Jew by choice, to halt AIDS.

“Melting Away”
screens at 7 p.m. June 23 at the Roxie Theater, 3117 16th St., S.F. In Hebrew with English subtitles. (Not rated, 86 minutes)

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.