Niv Nissim, right, and John Benjamin Hickey star in "Sublet," the new film from director Eytan Fox. (Photo/Daniel Miller)
Niv Nissim, right, and John Benjamin Hickey star in "Sublet," the new film from director Eytan Fox. (Photo/Daniel Miller)

Eytan Fox, pop prince of Israeli cinema, keeps it queer in ‘Sublet’

Cosmopolitan without being condescending, au courant without the arrogance of hipness, Eytan Fox has been the pop prince of Israeli cinema for nearly three decades. The gay, New York-born director’s worldview has translated easily across borders, as the beyond-Israel success of “Yossi & Jagger” (2002) and “Walk on Water” (2004) demonstrated.

Fox’s new film, “Sublet” — his first movie largely in English — would seem to be made more for the international market than for a domestic audience, even if its shimmering Tel Aviv locations, romantically challenged leads and homegrown singer-songwriter soundtrack recall his hit 1990s TV series “Florentine” and his 2006 romantic drama “The Bubble.”

Now in his 50s, Fox still tracks the pop pulse of secular, youth-oriented Tel Aviv. But time moves on, even if you’re plugged into the latest tunes, and “Sublet” plays like the hesitant first steps of a successful, middle-aged, gay artist who realizes, with bemusement as well as reluctance, that he can’t be the voice of the next generation.

If I’ve made “Sublet” sound like the lowest-stakes mid-life crisis you’ve ever encountered, so be it. A film of — though not about — unspoken yearnings and missed opportunities, it has the breadth and emotional resonance of a short story.

“Sublet,” which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival a year ago, opens June 11 at theaters including the Embarcadero Center Cinema in San Francisco and the Shattuck Cinemas in Berkeley.

The movie’s protagonist is a graying, self-effacing New York Times travel columnist named Michael (John Benjamin Hickey) who has just landed in Tel Aviv on his usual assignment: A five-day immersion in a foreign city that seeks out the “resident experience” over tourist destinations.

But Michael is the furthest thing from an adventurer. He has no interest in life-changing revelation, no appetite for pulse-quickening escapades, no curiosity to discover what’s beneath the surface. Travel is his job, and it’s simply a routine, albeit one that includes periodically leaving his husband in New York City for five days.

So when he knocks on the door of the sublet apartment where he’ll be staying, he’s dismayed to find the tenant home (and seemingly in the morning throes of last night’s tryst) and the place a mess. Disorder is not Michael’s friend.

His erstwhile landlord is the unsettled opposite. Tomer (Niv Nissim) is a wiry 20-something film student with an endless parade of one-day lovers and zero interest in the past or the future. (And no discernible source of income beyond renting out his place while he couch-surfs at the pads of friends and pickups.)

Oddly, Michael sees nothing of his younger self in Tomer, who is omnisexual but primarily attracted to men. Didn’t Michael cruise Manhattan bathhouses in the early ’80s? Or fall in and out of love once a week?

So their slow-burning friendship sketches the contours of their generation gap — Tomer is a habitué of the gay hookup app Grindr, Michael sleeps in pajamas — and their relationship is more akin to father-son than anything else, including far-flung members of the same tribe.

Alas, the pitfall that “Sublet” never evades or escapes is the challenge of making us deeply, profoundly invested in characters whose motivating forces are comfort (Michael) and pleasure (Tomer).

They do share one thing in common, we eventually come to learn, which involves conceiving (or being conceived) via artificial insemination. At that moment, we see Michael as the father that Tomer never had. And if the older man has shown Tomer the first steps on the path to growing up, the younger man has awakened Michael’s dormant capacity for aliveness and possibility.

This turn of events won’t shock many viewers, although there are a few unexpected encounters along the way. What is surprising is the absence of social or political commentary. Fox doesn’t begin to explore American perceptions of Israel, or even Jewish identity.

The closest allusion involves a train visit to the kibbutz where Tomer’s mother lives. Like so much else in “Sublet,” Fox and co-writer Itay Segal nod in the direction of something — in this case, Israel’s foundational and long-vanished communalism, cooperation and collaboration — without dramatizing it and making us feel it.

To be sure, “Sublet” is littered with small pleasures: a modern dance performance, a view of the beach at sunset, breakfast on a balcony. If you’re seeking something light and superficial for your return to movie theaters, this is it.

“Sublet” opens Friday, June 11 at the Embarcadero Center Cinema in S.F. and Shattuck Cinemas in Berkeley (90 minutes. In English and Hebrew with English subtitles. Unrated.)

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.