Watch it with us: Netflix streaming
When I came across the plot summary for Zero Motivation on Netflix, I had to read it a couple of times to make sure I wasn’t hallucinating. “As they serve out their required term, an all-female unit of the Israeli army battles boredom and personal frictions at a remote desert outpost.” Come again? Workplace comedies, at least of the big-screen variety, are historically the provenance of male characters. A handful of films in the ’80s and ’90s focused on women in the workplace: Working Girl, 9 to 5, Private Benjamin, and the often-overlooked Clockwatchers. But for these women, a job is a means to an end, and the end is always marriage.
I say this to highlight the miraculous oddity that is Zero Motivation. The fact that it’s a workplace comedy about women in the Israeli army is astonishing on its own. But the comedic elements have more in common with Clerks and Office Space than with Private Benjamin, the only other comedy I could come up with that focused on a woman in the military. That film is a classic fish-out-of-water story and it is pleasant enough, but Zero Motivation takes the fact that women serve in the military for granted and instead focuses on the mind-numbing ennui that sets in when you’re assigned a boring and seemingly pointless task and simply told to obey or else.
The film is divided into three roughly equal segments and focuses mainly on a pair of friends, Zohar and Daffi. Zohar is determined to do as little work as she can get away with; her only real motivation is to keep beating her own high scores on Minesweeper. Daffi is obsessed with getting a transfer to Tel Aviv, where she has always wanted to live. Their lieutenant, Rama, is up for a promotion and tries to get them to toe the line to demonstrate her leadership skills. Not surprisingly, Daffi, Zohar, and the rest of their unit have other priorities.
In the first segment, a young woman pretends to be a new recruit in Rama’s unit and sneaks onto the base to see a male soldier, with disastrous results. In the second, the rest of the unit figures out that Zohar is still a virgin, and they needle her about it until she decides to take action, also with disastrous results. In the third, Daffi returns from officer training school to take over Rama’s job as lieutenant. I half-expected the story to end here, with Daffi and Zohar reunited and everything mostly the same as the beginning. Instead their friendship is strained by Daffi’s change in position, and the two women finally come to blows, shooting each other with staple guns and throwing phones and keyboards at each other. It plays out much the same way fistfights between male friends do in other films: tempers boil over, resulting in a burst of violence followed immediately by an unspoken truce. Women in movies never deal with conflict this way, and I don’t know how true to life it is, but it’s certainly refreshing to see onscreen.
I was also struck by the novelty of watching a film that deals with the tedium of military life. Everyone I know who’s served in the military mentions the difficulty of keeping oneself occupied day to day, but it’s not something I’ve ever seen captured or even addressed in a movie. The film’s dry, self-deprecating humor feels as if it could only come from personal experience, and indeed, first-time director Talya Lavie based the screenplay on her own stint in the Israel Defense Forces. It reminds me a bit of how real-life doctors tend to identify with the self-deprecating, unglamorous humor of Scrubs over the glossy drama of ER or Grey’s Anatomy. Perhaps it’s difficult for an outsider to see anything but a squeaky-clean hero when we imagine soldiers or doctors or anyone else whose daily grind involves saving lives. We need those heroic, idealized narratives to show us our potential as humans. But we also need stories like this one, told with humor and self-awareness, to show us our own absurdity.
– Ashley Wells watches too many movies and welcomes recommendations for more. Leave her one here or on Twitter: @ashleybwells. Spoiler alert: she has already seen Troll 2.