One of the talents of the title character in Shemi Zarhin’s Israeli film–a remarkably even-tempered teenager who acts as peacemaker in his own fractious family even as he feels the first pangs of youthful lust and his teachers mull over his level of intellectual capacity–is making elaborate pastries and cakes. That’s entirely appropriate, because “Bonjour Monsieur Shlomi” is as sweet as any dessert the young man could ever concoct. Happily, it’s pretty delicious, too.
As played by Oshri Cohen, who looks remarkably like a full-sized version of Elijah Wood, Shlomi is a young man whose indifferent performance at school leads to the threat of expulsion. At the same time he longs to take his newly steady relationship with schoolmate (Rotem Zisman) to the next level, something she teasingly resists. At home, Shlomi lives with his abrasive mother (Esti Zakhem) and his doddering but supportive paternal grandfather (Arie Elias), who fantasizes about serving in the army with Menachem Begin. He also has to contend with his father (Albert Illouz), who’s been thrown out of the house by his wife for reasons of infidelity and now schemes insistently to return; his older brother Doron (Jonathan Rozen), a lascivious would-be musician on whom his mother dotes (having provided him with one of her kidneys); and his married sister Ziva (Rotem Abuhav), who regularly leaves her husband and returns home because of hubby’s activities on the computer. While trying to maintain a semblance of peace among all his quarreling relatives, Shlomi also falls for a free-spirited young woman named Rona (Aya Koren) who lives next door (and who’s supposedly involved with Doron’s band mate), and is discovered to have untapped intellectual potential by his principal (Yigal Naor).
There’s a heavy load of whimsy and cuteness in the way Zarhin ties all these story threads together and works them through, and his picture often threatens to degenerate into a feature-length sitcom centered on a likable schlub dealing with a bevy of colorful zanies, on which has been superimposed a teenage version of “Charly.” What keeps it from descending into saccharine banality is the gentle, unforced quality of Cohen’s performance, which helps to make Shlomi a character one can really root for rather than simply pity. And while the family business never really transcends formula–undermined by supporting performances which slip too easily into caricature–Shlomi’s relationship with Rona, abetted by a nicely nuanced turn from Koren, works well, and the material between the youngster and Naor’s affable teacher is charming, too (although a digression concerning a lunch between the principal and Shlomi’s mother doesn’t come off). There’s never any doubt that everything’s going to work out in the end, of course–even the one sad moment in the narrative will come as a surprise to nobody, and is more glowingly nostalgic than truly tragic–but though its destination is entirely predictable, the warm-hearted picture proves a quite pleasant vehicle for getting there. Its look complements the content, with Itzik Portal’s camerawork (shot originally on digital video) unspectacular but inviting.
One can’t deny the manipulative nature of “Bonjour Monsieur Shlomi,” but thanks especially to Cohen’s winning presence, you’ll probably be happy to make its acquaintance.