2020 TRIBECA FILM FESTIVAL: A great movie surprises you. If you think you know where a film is headed, but then it goes in a whole other direction, the possibilities are endless. “Asia,” one of Tribeca’s best entries this year, pulls this off beautifully. Part of that is due to the insistence on never dovetailing into melodrama. A reading of the plot would suggest a soapy tale of love, regret, and misery. Instead, there’s both liveliness and a moving sense of realism at play. Mixed with a pair of spectacular performances, this is among the top efforts the fest had to offer in 2020.
There are a lot of ways the story in “Asia” could have been told. Deftly avoiding anything that could be misconstrued as coming out of Nicholas Sparks territory, the movie instead veers closer to the tone set by “Amour.” Not quite as cold as that effort, “Asia” mixes reality with the emotions on display. That may hold a few at arm’s length, especially if you require some level of manipulation. However, the genius of this work is that it lets you process things as you see fit. Tears may flow, but the movie will never try to steal them from you.
A testament to love and sacrifice, the story centers on the evolving relationship between a mother and her sick daughter. Asia (Alena Yiv) works as a nurse, alternating between worrying about her patients and worrying about her teenage child, Vika (Shira Haas), whom she had at an early age. Asia only seems to relax during periodic sexual encounters with Stas (Gera Sandler). Vika does her best to have a normal life, spending time at the skate park, but her motor skills are degenerating, exacerbated by her periodic mixing medication with alcohol. Still, barring some weakness in her hands, she seems like a normal kid, complete with parental arguments. Asia and Vika are at odds in terms of how to handle her progressive deterioration, but a doctor’s visit makes it clear there’s only one way this is going to go.
As her condition worsens, Vika becomes confined to a wheelchair, requiring more of Asia’s attention. Knowing the teen needs to spend time with someone who isn’t her mother, and with Vika’s best friend Nataliie (Eden Halili) fading away, she looks for a male presence in her life. Enter kindly orderly Gabi (Tamur Mula), who may give her way Asia can not. To say more about where this ultimately goes would be a crime, but it upends expectations while still playing out as it likely would in real life.
Shira Haas and Alena Yiv are truly monumental. Haas begins as a sexually curious teenager, equally looking to lose her virginity as she is to not get in over her head. When her illness takes over, the subtle depiction of her dwindling motor functions is powerful. Haas may well be destined to be a star, displaying emotion on her face without ever going overboard. As for Yiv, she’s somehow both stoic and a wreck. The dedication she has to her daughter, even when there’s not much appreciation, is a tribute to the bond that a maternal figure plays in a child’s life.
Filmmaker Ruthy Pribar hits all of the right notes. Her script leaves plenty unsaid, but without any sense of missing out. Her direction hovers on faces, letting her actresses process emotion, often on their own. It’s a bold choice to focus so much on these two, but it pays off. The supporting cast are all very solid, but Pribar rightly makes this all about Haas and Yiv.
As far as intimate dramas go, “Asia” is really top-notch. Never content to go for an easy emotional beat, every single moment feels real, regardless of what other feelings it brings out in you. Winner of three of Tribeca’s top prizes this year, it’s a very strong selection and highlights some of the best the festival has to offer. When it comes around to an actual release, this is one not to miss!
“Asia” is a part of the 2020 Tribeca Film Festival and is currently seeking distribution.