‘Zero Motivation’ Is a Dark Meditation on Forced Military Service
Prepare to laugh when you shouldn't
In Israel, every able-bodied citizen over the age of 18 must join the Israel Defense Forces. Men serve three years and women serve two. Conscription provides manpower to the military and binds the Israeli people through common experience.
But not every young man and woman actually wants to join the IDF. Dozens of physical and mental exemptions exist to cull the worst of the lot, but despite that many reluctant recruits make it through basic training every year.
Zero Motivation is a film about those conscripts. It focuses on a group of young women serving out their two years in an office, just trying to pass the time without killing each other or going crazy.
It’s Bridesmaids meets Stripes as if directed by Todd Solondz — weird, disturbing and wonderful.
Zero Motivation often feels more like a workplace drama than a military comedy. That’s part of its magic. The young woman soldiers are all clerks serving out their two years at a remote desert military base. They spend their days doing clerical work, shredding paper and serving coffee to men. There’s a lot of paperwork and napping.
If the setting sounds like a soul crushing, bureaucratic nightmare, it’s meant to. The young women of Zero Motivation are stuck … and they all deal with it differently.
Zohar, a woman who grew up on a kibbutz, decides she’ll spend her two years having as much fun as possible. She compulsively plays minesweeper and freecell on the office computers and takes every opportunity to mock the IDF and its officers.
Daffi just wants to escape. She’s Zohar’s best friend and the two write letters in a mad attempt to get Daffi transferred out of the desert. Daffi knows she’s stuck in the IDF but she’s determined to make the best of it. To her, that means a transfer to glamorous Tel Aviv.
Rama is the commanding officer. She’s a true believer who wants to stay in the IDF and serve her country. Too bad then, that she’s a terrible commander. The lazy and bored women of her office are intransigent by nature. But she’s also terrible at motivating them.
Both the trailer and those character descriptions make the film sound like a funny and fun comedy about lovable losers in the military. Like Sgt. Bilko or Stripes with Israeli women.
But that’s not really what the film is. Zero Motivation is a dark comedy — brutal, vicious and often hilarious.
Zero Motivation is also absurd, depressing, surreal and touching all at once. It’s an ambitious mix and it works so well it’s hard to believe what you’re watching.
Writer-director Talya Lavie based the film on her own experiences in the IDF, but she claimed that it’s not autobiographical. I hope not, I wouldn’t wish some of the events of Zero Motivation on my worst enemy.
In the middle of the movie, Zohar decides she wants to finally lose her virginity. “God, please make like everyone else, make me normal,” she prays as the armorer hands her a rifle. She’s about to start guard duty.
“I don’t want to die a virgin. I mean, I don’t want to die at all, but definitely not as a virgin.”
Her desire leads to a meet-cute over the barrel of a rifle. It ends less cute, also over the barrel of a rifle.
Irena — a minor character — is an incredibly confident and self-assured woman. She’s trying to finish out her time in the IDF by reading books and poking fun at Zohar. But she suffers a mental break and spends the rest of the film in a strange catatonic state … that is at once both heartbreaking and hilarious.
Zero Motivation humanizes all of its characters, even those that would be stock villains in a lesser film.
Rama — the woman in charge of the office — could easily be a one-note villain in an American military comedy. Typically in movies about lovable losers in the military, commanders exist as impotent foils for the heroes.
But Zero Motivation is better than that. Lavie uses the character to paint a sad portrait of ambitious mediocrity. Rama is fully realized in the same way that The Office humanized Michael Scott. She’s often so sad it’s hard not to laugh.
And that’s the great trick in Zero Motivation. It deals with office romance, sexual assault, mental illness, female friendship, suicide and holocaust humor … and does so with an absurd and madcap tone. Yet it never misses a beat and never feels preachy, boring or overwrought.
The ending of the film is especially poignant, and I’m going to talk about it here. This is your last chance to avoid spoilers.
Zohar spends the bulk of the film irritating her commanders and slacking off. She serves her two years in and out of the brig, but she survives. The final moment of the film shows her leaving the base in civilian clothes with a smile on her face.
She boards the bus for the city and it’s empty. The camera lingers on the rows and rows of empty seats. No music plays. We see Zohar again, she looks panicked and vaguely disturbed, as if this was not what she expected.
I felt, in that moment, that the full weight of freedom and the future hit Zohar. It’s something so many in the West experience. That moment when we finish school or leave the military. That moment when no one can tell us what to do anymore, we realize it and it terrifies us.
Zero Motivation captures that near-universal moment in a glance and that, in my mind, makes it a masterpiece
Catch it on Netflix.