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Tribeca Film Review: ‘Bobbi Jene’

Variety logo Variety 5/9/2017 Dennis Harvey
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A dancer’s personal and professional transition from early to mid-career is charted in “Bobbi Jene.” Elvira Lind’s feature somewhat surprisingly swept the documentary competition awards at Tribeca, but this slice of verite isn’t really insightful or dramatic enough to compel the attention of viewers not well attuned to the modern dance world. Even those who are will find it considerably less rewarding than last year’s “Mr. Gaga,” which profiled subject Bobbi Jene Smith’s mentor Ohad Naharin of Batsheva Dance Company, and alongside which this new film feels like a footnote.

Should Smith turn out to be a significant choreographic talent on her own, “Bobbi Jene” will prove a valuable record of her initial progress after leaving Batsheva. Yet neither her solo work nor her offstage personality proves particularly fascinating, at least as presented here.

That departure from the internationally acclaimed Tel Aviv-based company starts off the film, with Smith officially informing Naharin of her decision to return to the U.S. It had been her dream to dance with Batsheva, and she dropped out of college at 21 to do so. Her entire adulthood (when not touring or on vacation) has been spent in Israel, though oddly she appears to have learned no Hebrew whatsoever. She was involved romantically for a time with Naharin (a work/play boundary blurring not unusual for him, as we gleaned from “Mr. Gaga”), though that’s only mentioned in passing here.

In any case, now she is involved with fellow company member Or Schraiber, who is 10 years her junior. They are seemingly committed for the long term, but that commitment will have to be long distance for a while, as on the cusp of turning 30 she feels it’s time to begin establishing herself as an independent creator. Schraiber understandably worries he’s too young to abandon the still new learning experience of Batsheva and has no real desire to leave his homeland. She, on the other hand, says the country still “doesn’t feel like home.” There’s much back and forth on this issue throughout the length of “Bobbi Jene.” Yet as willing as these two attractive people are to expose themselves in certain ways (especially as far as nudity goes), they don’t seem terribly complicated or articulate on the emotional plane. Nor does their situation evolve much during the course of the couple years the film covers.

Professionally, Smith has to start over more or less from scratch in the States, where she gets some teaching gigs while trying to find venues and support for her own performances. Finally she does get asked to premiere an hour-long, primarily solo work in both Jerusalem and Manhattan. Spectators attest to how “moving” they find this piece, in which she appears nude and at one point uses a sandbag to “pleasure” herself. But while it’s easy to grasp Naharin’s genius in excerpts from his bold, often large-scale choreography, what we see of Smith’s work translates poorly to a clip format: It looks like the kind of performance art that may well be more cathartic for the performer than enlightening or even interesting to the viewer, and whose slow-burning intensity is lost without full immersion regardless.

Intriguing peripheral characters surface, particularly the subject’s mother, Denise, an evangelical Christian nonetheless supportive of her daughter’s sometimes envelope-pushing art. (Curiously, Laura Dern also turns up in a random dinner-party sequence, having Naharin’s “Gaga” movement language explained to her by Smith.) But the focus stays stubbornly on Smith, with or without boyfriend Schraiber, and while these are pleasant-enough people to be around, neither their personal life or creative processes are probed with any great insight.

For a film with such a narrow scope, this one oddly refuses to ask some of the basic questions that might have enriched our understanding: We learn very little about Smith’s pre-Batsheva life, or about her decade in Israel for that matter. When the topic of a past eating disorder comes up, she hastily dismisses the subject. “I want to get to the place where I have no strength to hide anything,” she says of her work. Yet as a portrait of real life, “Bobbi Jene” doesn’t require her to be very revealing, and she doesn’t volunteer it.

Though it won the documentary editing and cinematography nods at Tribeca, the assembly here is more competent than inspired, with Uno Helmersson’s spare guitar-based score a modest plus.

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