The charming new indie film “Is That You?” explores a well-trod storyline: a graying loner wonders what happened to an old flame and sets out to find her. But the empathy and humanity of the characters are what make director Dani Menkin’s film come to life.
The film follows Ronnie (Alon Aboutboul), a 60-year-old Israeli movie projectionist fired from his job, who travels to the United States to visit his brother, Jacob (Rani Bleier), and, more important, to seek out Rachel (Suzanne Sadler), his long-lost love interest. After their breakup, Ronnie had continued to rate all other girlfriends on the “Rachel scale,” and he became consumed with wondering what happened to her.
Jacob lends his brother a car so he can track down the elusive Rachel. But when the car breaks down and leaves Ronnie stranded, an unexpected stranger comes to his aid: Myla (Naruna Kaplan de Macedo), a 20-year-old former auto mechanic and now film student. She is making a documentary, “The Road Not Taken,” in which she interviews strangers about their deepest regrets, and offers to help Ronnie search for Rachel in exchange for his agreeing to participate in her film.
The pair makes an odd couple: Ronnie is sullen and wistful, Myla is upbeat and quirky. But she’s able to draw out his personality, makes him feel young again, and helps him pursue his romantic dream while he becomes the central figure in a student film that closely mirrors the subject of the actual film.
“Is That You?” is an Israeli-American co-production, written by Menkin and acclaimed Israeli writer Eshkol Nevo. Menkin shot the film for under $1 million, relying on volunteers, film students and locals hired to be extras. He shot the film in Syracuse, N.Y., where he had lived as an artist-in-residence through the Schusterman Visiting Artist Program, funded by the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation. During the three weeks it took to shoot the film, the cast lived together in a rented house.
Aboutboul has starred in movies ranging from small indie productions to big-budget action films like “The Dark Knight Rises,” “London Has Fallen” and “Body of Lies.” He said he was drawn to this film because of its subject matter: love.
“It was an opportunity to track down and explore the idea of a 40-year-old love, and what is the line between fantasy and reality, and what is the time when you have no more chances, and when is your last chance,” he said. “That intrigued me.”
The movie has funny anecdotes that highlight the tension between American Jews and Israelis. Jacob complains that his son wants to enlist in the Israeli army to join the elite Golani Brigade, and asks Ronnie to talk him out of it. Jacob tells Ronnie his son speaks Hebrew “ktsat” — a little — though he says it with a comically exaggerated American accent. The exchange speaks to a tension among Israelis who raise their children in America and then see a distorted version of Israel reflected back to them by those children, who might idealize or demonize the country.
“Traveling a lot in the States with my films, I met a lot of Israelis like that,” Menkin said. “And I thought it’d be fun to capture that in the movie.”
The theme of regret resonated with Aboutboul, who admitted that in the past few years he came to realize he was carrying around more regrets than he had once thought. But he compared going through life to making a film — both experiences in which he needed to stop second-guessing himself. “You adopt a certain attitude that it’s made, it’s done … Next! Let’s move on,” he said.
Bleier, an Israeli TV Academy Award-winning director and screenwriter, who plays Jacob, has a long history of working with Aboutboul. They both starred for seven years in the hit Israeli show “Shabatot VeHagim” that Aboutboul also directed.
Menkin also said he appreciated having Aboutboul on the set.
“For me, to direct such an experienced director — who was then head of the Directors Guild of Israel — was a big privilege, because I could also ask for his advice while we shot the film,” Menkin said.
Kaplan de Macedo, the French actress who plays Myla, is a young documentary filmmaker, like her character, and bears an uncanny resemblance to the actress Zooey Deschanel in both appearance and mannerisms. She acted in Menkin’s previous feature film, “Je T’aime, I Love You Terminal,” and brings a sense of sweetness and wonder to the film.
As a director, Menkin wears his influences on his sleeve. The title font of “Is That You?” is the same used in all of Woody Allen’s films, which Menkin said was meant to be a tribute to one of his favorite directors.
“I like his pacing, I like his style, and I like the simplicity of his stories,” Menkin said of Allen. “In many ways it was an homage to American independent cinema.”
Menkin also cited Alexander Payne as an influence. Payne’s acclaimed films “Sideways” and “Nebraska” both feature two characters going on a quest in the form of a road trip and learning about themselves along the way.
“Is That You?” has received a warm response in Israel, playing in arthouse cinemas across the country and winning the Best Independent Film prize at the Israeli Academy Awards. Menkin said he hopes American Jewish audiences will give it a similar embrace.