JIFF Review: Scaffolding

There are some great directorial debuts in this year’s Jewish Film Festival line-up. The Cakemaker and In Between are real standouts, but also impressive is Matan Yair’s Scaffolding, an intimate portrayal of youth, masculinity and the ill effects of bad parenting.  

At the centre of the story is 17-year old Israeli Asher Lax. He’s more or less illiterate but is studying for his oral exams to matriculate from high school. Not that he’s getting any support from his father Milo (Yaacov Cohen) who expects his son to work full time for his scaffolding business with the view of one day taking it over. He doesn’t see the point of studying, especially literature, which is the one subject Asher takes an interest in.

Asher’s main adversary though is himself. He has a short concentration span and an even shorter fuse. He’s always getting into trouble and seems to always be one step away from being expelled.

Despite being a high maintenance student, Asher has one ally in his literature teacher Rami (Ami Smolartchik) who clearly has a soft spot for Asher and goes out of his way to keep him on the right track.

So, there are two forms of scaffolding being prepared for Asher’s future, the quite literal one that Milo wants his son to make a living out of, and the educational one that Rami is setting up to broaden Asher’s options.

The character of Rami becomes increasingly intriguing as the story progresses. He’s visibly uncomfortable when the students ask him personal questions about his family. He’s further unsettled by Asher’s response to an assignment where the students have to write down questions they want to ask their father. Initially we don’t know what Asher has written, so we don’t know what it is exactly that Rami finds so disturbing.

Scaffolding has a strong air of authenticity, borne from the fact that writer director Matan Yair is a former teacher. His characters, teachers and students alike, feel real and complex, as are the issues they’re dealing with.

Authentic it may be, but at first there is a sense of disorientation because the lead actor, who’s also called Asher Lax, looks so much older than 17. You’d be excused for asking yourself, why he was still in high school? In fact, Asher used to be one of the director’s students, presumably he’s aged a bit since the real life experiences that inspired the film. All the students are played by Asher’s friends, which explains why they all look older than the characters they’re playing.

There’s a lot of pain in Scaffolding, dealing as it does with dysfunctional families and flawed role models, and it doesn’t opt out for easy solutions or sentimental gestures.

In the early scenes you may feel like you’re not going to warm to the characters, Asher and Milo are both gruff, arrogant men, but we learn to understand why they have become the way they are and hope they can break out of what feels like a vicious circle.

Ultimately Scaffolding proves to be a well-crafted and restlessly engrossing drama.

✭✭✭1/2

Scaffolding is currently screening at the Jewish International Film Festival

Richard Leathem @dickiegee