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Israeli ‘Yana’ is worth watching

Fresh faces give comedy an air of authenticity

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YANA'S FRIENDS —*** — Evelyne Kaplun, Nir Levi, Shmil Ben-Ari, Moscu Alcalay, Vladimir Friedman, Lema Sachanova; in Yiddish and Russian, with English subtitles; not rated, probable R (violence, sex, nudity, profanity, vulgarity); Tower Theatre.

"Yana's Friends" are neither the nicest nor the most savory of characters.

Among the more notable ones are a videographer who uses a camera for voyeuristic purposes, members of a family who use their wheelchair-confined grandfather to panhandle and, worst of all, Yana's own husband, who leaves the mother-to-be with a stack of unpaid bills.

Again, these are not the best of people. But since they're fictional characters and not real people, they're not as repellent or unlikable as you might think. In fact, their struggles with conscience, as well as outside forces, help make this low-key Israeli comedy-drama surprisingly watchable.

Also, the cast is filled with fresh faces who don't look like matinee idols. Instead, they look like "normal" people, which adds a nice ring of authenticity to the movie.

Those fresh faces include newcomer Evelyne Kaplun, who stars as the title character, a Russian immigrant who arrives in Tel Aviv around the time of the Gulf War. Within days of her arrival, her husband heads back home, leaving her without means of support. So she's fortunate to make friends with neighbor Eli (Nir Levi), who makes his living — and his social life — with a video camera.

Meanwhile, another pair of Russian immigrants, Alik and Mila (Vladimir Friedman and Lena Sachanova), are also struggling to get by, so he starts wheeling her grandfather (Moscu Alcalay) out onto the street, hoping that the sight of him will cause some passers-by to be generous. However, it instead garners a strong reaction from street musician Yuri (Shmil Ben-Ari), who starts to see his usual coinage decreasing with the arrival of this "trespasser."

In addition, all of them soon find themselves in great danger as missile and gas attacks from Iraq become more and more frequent.

Obviously, there's a great deal of drama in all of these character predicaments, but co-screenwriter/director Arik Kaplun uses quite of bit of humor to lighten things up — though sometimes the changes in tone seem a tad forced.

Fortunately, the performances are solid (especially those by Kaplun and Levi), and the material is somewhat moving.

"Yana's Friends" is not rated but would probably receive an R for violence (warfare and a brief tussle), scenes of simulated sex, female nudity and scattered use of strong profanity and some crude sexual talk. Running time: 91 minutes.

E-MAIL: jeff@desnews.com