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Israeli director Michal Aviad was inspired to make “Working Woman” after watching a range of films about sexual harassment in the workplace. Much to her surprise — and dismay — she discovered that most of them dismissed, demeaned, or even demonized the victims.
Aviad’s thoughtful response is a film that feels very contemporary, but will also resonate with generations of viewers who recognize the many small moments that lead up to and follow its quietly wrenching central experience.
The film opens as a smiling Orna (Liron Ben Shlush) leaves her first job interview in years. She’s the harried mother of three children, and her husband, Ofer (Oshri Cohen), has recently opened a small and still-struggling restaurant in Tel Aviv. Ofer is skeptical of the time his newly-employed wife will be spending away from home, but she’s approaching her return to the workplace with a mixture of practicality and excitement. Her family needs the money, and she thinks she might actually be good at the job, as assistant to a wealthy and powerful real estate developer.
As it turns out, she’s great at this work. So much so, in fact, that she receives an immediate promotion to sales manager — which brings not only a raise, but also more and more attention from her boss, Benny (Israeli star Menashe Noy, “Gett”). Since we’ve got an outsider’s perspective, Benny’s increasingly intimate comments set off alarm bells immediately. But he has the smooth charm of innate entitlement and the confident narcissism of a master gaslighter. So Orna is left wondering whether he’s just trying to help her out with sales when he suggests she wear her hair down and buy more sophisticated clothes.
Though it becomes harder and harder for her to rationalize his comments — and, soon, his actions — Orna feels she has no choice. For one thing, she’s found a career she loves, as long as the boss isn’t around. But for another, the boss writes the paychecks on which her entire family now relies.
Aviad knows there will be moments when audience members may be tempted to echo Ofer’s frustrated disbelief: why hasn’t Orna done this, or that, or anything else in the face of Benny’s clearly escalating misbehavior? But that’s where the film’s greatest strength kicks in, with painstaking answers for each instinctual or cynical question. Aviad has extensive experience as an award-winning documentarian (“The Woman Next Door,” “Jenny & Jenny”), and she and cinematographer Daniel Miller use long takes with a handheld camera to build a subtly effective sense of reality.
Thanks to committed performances and a meticulous script (by Aviad, Michal Vinik, and Sharon Azulay Eyal), Orna and Ofer feel like an actual couple, whose loving connection complicates both her confusion and his response to her pain. Their cramped and dark apartment also contrasts uncomfortably with the lavish and light-filled home where Benny and his wife Sari (Dorit Lev-Ari) live. But when Aviad brings them all together, we’re jarred both by the power that protects Benny and the knowledge that it’s merely muffling the ugly noise Sari hasn’t yet heard.
“Working Woman” has the intent focus of a horror film: Aviad sets her characters on a path at the start, and never strays from the inevitable destination. This commitment falters only at the end, with a finale that lacks a similarly unsparing candor. Perhaps that’s because there can’t be a truly satisfying conclusion to this particular story, or because she hasn’t yet found what it might be. Regardless, every moment indicates deep compassion for Orna, and anyone else who might be driven to see a multi-layered message movie for the #MeToo era.