Like their American and Serbian counterparts in Kids and Clip, the Israeli teens in Johnathan Gurfinkel’s S#x Acts get up to some truly irresponsible sexual behavior. Since Larry Clark’s infamous portrait of young Manhattan men as sexual predators and women as their unwitting victims scandalized and titillated viewers in equal measure back in 1995, not a whole lot has changed in this particular corner of the cinematic landscape. The only new wrinkle in the on-screen interrogation of the fine line between teenage lust and sexual abuse is the addition of technology, particularly the video function of smartphones, to the mix, a development that forms the chief context of Maja Milos’s controversial 2012 film.
It also factors in, albeit to a lesser degree in Gurfinkel’s effort, whose ambiguous English language title can be read as both “six acts” (a nod to the film’s structure) or “sex acts,” and whose use of the pound sign suggests the centrality of new technology to the lives of its characters. But while the circulation of an impromptu sex video plays a key role in the film, the technological angle is almost a side note to the meatier stuff of a naturalistic portrait of teenage behavior.
Less brutalizing than Clip and more insightful, S#x Acts follows the teenage Gili (Sivan Levy), a newcomer to the neighborhood who makes the acquaintance of a trio of guys from her school and engages in an escalating round of sexual involvement with the three. Romantically inclined toward the most noxious of the three, Omri (Eviator Mor), she half rebuffs his efforts and half rewards them, agreeing to fellate him, but not fuck him in a club bathroom. Things continue to get worse for Gili, as she has sex with another kid in which the question of her consent becomes highly blurred, and later gets humiliated at a party thrown by Omri.
So why does Gili put up with this behavior? That’s the question the film asks, and its refusal to provide definitive answers is both its most admirable and most troubling quality. Gurfinkel and screenwriter Rona Segal present a young woman in a precarious position, desperate to make an impression at a new school, troubled by economic factors (her family is of far more modest means then her new acquaintances), and, presumably, in search of genuine affection. She uses the only tool she knows how to use, her sexuality, to bridge the gap, but the result is that the boys view her increasingly as a purely sexual object.
Because of the film’s observational stance, which, coupled with an aesthetic of rough-hewn camerawork and blurred backgrounds, offers only selective glimpses of the teens and their actions, we never know exactly what Gili’s motivations are. This allows the film to illustrate patterns of behavior rather than drive home bland theses about the desperate cycles of teenage sexuality favored by lesser movies covering similar territory. But in its refusal to bring this easy understanding to its main character’s behavior, it comes dangerously close to presenting her as a willing perpetrator in her own victimhood. That the film’s ultimately sympathetic viewpoint never allows it to quite cross the line means that S#x Acts remains a worthwhile piece of work, but it’s a perpetually dangerous game to attempt to bring too much objectivity to a situation where a clear moral reckoning ought never to be too far from the surface.