The sight of assault rifles isn’t an uncommon one in Israel, where military service is compulsory for young people. And throughout Tom Shoval’s Youth, 18-year-old Yaki Cooper (David Cunio) never leaves his family’s apartment without his gun. Dressed in civilian clothes, Yaki even brings his weapon to a casual gathering in a local park where he drinks with some friends, carrying the threat of violence with him. Yaki, on a short leave from the army, has just returned home, where his family seems to be on the verge of falling apart: His father, Moti (Moshe Ivgy), is unemployed and depressed, spending his time carousing with friends instead of looking for work, while is mother, Paula (Shirli Deshe), takes on odd jobs that aren’t enough to keep pace with the influx of bills. Both Yaki and his brother, Shaul (Eitan Cunio), worry about their future, so they hatch a plan to kidnap and ransom one of Shaul’s wealthy classmates, Dafna (Gita Amely), for cash.
Youth’s kidnapping plot, given the myriad of unforeseen obstacles that crop up in the Cooper brothers’ plan and the way Shoval cranks tension from them, is rooted in genre cinema. But the filmmaker also envisions the story as a fairly realistic family drama. Though the brothers commit a rather brutal kidnapping, they still invite our empathy through their fraught interactions with friends and family, all anchored by the strain put on them by economic circumstance. Moti is a depressive whose unemployment has left him with little authority, and his sons shun him to carry out their kidnapping, doing what Moti can’t to save their apartment from foreclosure. The compassion of the family drama contrasts sharply with the actual kidnapping, which leaves Dafna bound and gagged in the apartment building’s bomb shelter, with Yaki using military-taught techniques to prevent her from escaping.
Shoval, who eschews stylistic flourishes in order to focus on character, leaves the film’s heavy lifting to the actors and his own screenplay. The real-life brothers who play Yaki and Shaul, in addition to looking uncannily similar, create the impression, through mannerisms and facial expressions, that their characters are bonded by more than blood. When the kidnapping occurs, Yaki, who masterminded the plan with techniques he learned in the military, is never seriously questioned by Shaul, even as the flaws begin to appear in his plan. As Dafna gets accustomed to her surroundings, she appeals to Shaul’s empathy in an attempt to pit the brothers against each other, stoking one brother’s insecurities while the other is out of the room. But Shoval’s script never resorts to clichéd fraternal discord. Disagreement and conflict between the siblings brews, but it stays between the two of them.
Throughout the film, Shaul wears promotional T-shirts of violent Hollywood action movies like Drive Angry, The Black Dahlia, and Rambo. As a part of the film’s narrative, the shirts makes sense, as Shaul gets them for free from his job at a movie theater, but as a piece of social critique they feel oddly on the nose. They suggest that the brothers’ acts of violence are an attempt to find emotional catharsis and financial security via a would-be Hollywood film plot. While the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is never explicitly mentioned, its specter is always present, from Yaki’s rifle to his brutal but effective military training to the very presence of a concrete reinforced bomb shelter. Given the weight that the ethnic conflict in the region has on the population of Israel, it seems facile on the film’s part to blame pop culture for Yaki and Shaul’s actions.
In an early scene at the movie theater that employs Shaul, Moti pressures his son to let him, along with Yaki and a friend, into a screening, even though it could get Shaul into trouble. Shaul doesn’t cause a ruckus, but he sounds annoyed when he tells his father to wait until the movie has started. It’s a moment that could effectively tug at the tensions between an employed son and an unemployed father in any kind of family drama, and it also illustrates how Youth transcends a fairly generic kidnapping framework, as Yaki and Shaul, kidnappers though they may be, are still kids themselves, forced to grow up because their father doesn’t even act like a grown up himself.