The whimsically moody Israeli film "Jellyfish" takes its name from the sea creatures that drift through the shallows and wash up on the beaches of Tel Aviv; it refers, too, to humans who aimlessly follow the currents of life and end up where they least expect.
Directed by the married literary couple Etgar Keret and Shira Geffen and written by Geffen, the movie has a blue, pellucid dream-logic that never quite expands beyond its own wistfulness. It's one of those multiple-cast affairs, like "Crash," "Heights," and "Thirteen Conversations About One Thing," that follows seemingly unrelated stories and wonders where they'll intersect. The aim is to replicate life from a modestly cosmic vantage point.
The central character in "Jellyfish" is Batya (Sarah Adler), a sad-sack waitress weighed down by ennui; the girl seems so disconnected it's a wonder she can get out of bed without flopping on the floor. What's missing from Batya's life is any connection to childhood, a loss heightened when she's adopted by a moon-face little girl (Nikol Leidman) who appears from the sea wearing only underwear and a candy-stripe life preserver.
In another corner of the city is Joy (Manenita De Latorre), a Filipino elder-care provider who's wracked by guilt over the young son she has left behind; that she doesn't speak Hebrew only builds a taller wall around her loneliness. High up in a hotel suite are young honeymooners Keren (Noa Knoller) and Michael (Gera Sandler), marooned by her broken leg and growing sense of estrangement.
The subtopic of "Jellyfish" is family - the ways in which even those who love us can sting if they drift too close. Joy's latest charge is a cantankerous Holocaust survivor (Zaharira Harifai) whose actress daughter (Ilanit Ben-Yaakov) is doing avant-garde Hamlet; mother and child snipe and gouge at each other with the finesse of street fighters. Batya's own estranged parents have retreated from the ring; her dad has a new girlfriend whose bulimia he sees as a character tic instead of a sign of distress.
In spite of the entropy, "Jellyfish" is close to a comedy, with a gentle sense of absurdism and a welcome generosity toward its characters. Keret and Geffen have fashioned something similar to Miranda July's "Me and You and Everyone We Know," but with all the helium removed. (Well, almost all - that kid's a freckle-face pixie.) Tel Aviv has never looked more underpopulated; as water pours through a leak in Batya's ceiling, it seems as though the ocean is about to reclaim the city as a whole. Yet the incoming tide has the power to lift the characters' boats as well.
The water imagery ultimately leaves "Jellyfish" somewhat soggy, and the filmmakers haven't figured how to balance their symbolism so it doesn't sink all hands. The greater difficulty lies in making a film about human invertebrates without the tale itself turning spineless. While Geffen and Keret get sympathetic performances from their cast and establish a very specific and rarefied mood, greater impact floats out of reach. The movie remains an engaging miniature - a work of depressive yet tender magical realism. *
In Hebrew, English and German with English subtitles. Produced by Yael Fogiel, Laetitia Gonzalez, Amir Harel and Ayelet Kit, directed by Etgar Keret and Shira Geffen, written by Shira Geffen, music by Christopher Bowen, distributed by Zeitgeist Films.