In a 1963 interview with The Paris Review, Norman Mailer claimed that “boredom slays more of existence than war.” Tayla Lavie’s Zero Motivation runs with this idea by capturing the ennui that dishearteningly pervades the human resource offices of an Israeli army base in the desert, focusing on a group of young paper-pushing female soldiers trying to pass the time goofing around until their required service ends. Most prominently featured are passive-aggressive pals Daffi (Nelly Tagar), who dreams of escaping the barren land and being relocated to the metropolitan offices in Tel Aviv, and Zohar (Dana Ivgy), a virgin who dreams of being anywhere else but at the base, yet is too lethargic to do anything about it except sneer in disgust in the face of authority. Their supervisor is a frustrated commander (Shani Klein) whose uptightness is only exacerbated by the apathy she receives from all ends—underappreciated by the higher-up male officers and even less respected by the lazy girls who bitterly perform their thankless role. Rounding out the crew is an enclave of personality-less divas and a hard-as-nails Russian ex-pat.
They’re far from any violence; on a daily basis, in their military milieu and shoebox office, staple guns take priority over rifles and explosive landmines take a backseat to the computer game Minesweeper. A majority of the girls are horrible workers in their intern-level duties—a motley crew of whiners who perpetually opine their thankless positions as they fetch coffee for their superiors, collate personnel documents, and challenge each other to games. They’re essentially the Bad News Bears of war administration. And despite the war-zone setting, the film takes a decidedly apolitical point of view; it’s more invested in the conflicting personalities of its central group of female characters. These whippersnappers are too preoccupied cracking wise about the tedium of office life to acknowledge what’s occurring in the periphery of their immediate professional sphere, and the film suffers from a similarly flippant attitude.
Zero Motivation is refreshingly casual in the depiction of its female-centric environment, but the freshness of its performances is often compromised by a directorial impulse to reduce the female experience to spiteful girl fights, virginal malaise, and bunk-bed antagonism. In turn, the film often takes the form of a prank-filled campus co-ed comedy, flattening the narrative into a hormone-and-ego-fueled romp amid a volatile war. Lavie’s direction is assured, and the film exudes a rah-rah, scrappy moxie, but the attempt to maintain a tragicomic tone only appears in fits and starts—primarily in two scenes, one which depicts an unrequited love that yields graphic consequences and an attempted rape where the forceful male soldier gets an embarrassing comeuppance.
Lavie’s film misses the prime opportunity to remark on the triviality of war. Not that a pedantic treatise is in order, yet the lack of observation on the surrounding political situation is all but washed over in favor of juvenile gags, with the cattiness of this clan of disaffected young ladies and the purgatory of banal office life taking over as the tiresome enemies. For all the puckish interplay between its characters, Zero Motivation’s commentary is too often standing at ease.