When asked how everything’s going in “Asia,” the title character, played by Alena Yiv, can only answer “fine.” Clearly all is not right with the world when she isn’t asked this before she engages in some after hours intercourse with a co-worker from her hospital, and as she sits in a car recomposing herself — with her colleague as surprised as she is that they’ve found themselves back in each other’s company, noting how he thought she got sick of him, which she doesn’t deny — what’s left unsaid in Ruthy Pribar’s trenchant feature debut tells you all you need to know.
By this point in “Asia,” it’s understood what awaits her back home, a teenage daughter named Vika (Shira Haas), who is eager to engage in any number of rebellious pursuits with the boys at the local skate park, though that’s of lesser concern to Asia than her general health, which is deteriorating by the day. Informed Vika’s motor skills are in rapid decline and her breathing will surely follow, Asia is in the unusual position of having the confidence of a nurse, well-prepared for the physical indignities to come in taking care of her daughter in the months ahead, but surely not the emotional ones as she prepares to let go. Likewise Vika may be confronting issues of mortality well beyond her years, but with the natural impulses of her age, wanting to become her own person with experiences independent of her mother at a time when her condition requires them to be inseparable.
It’s an extraordinarily complex and effective set-up that never feels forced or overly melodramatic in Pribar’s assured hands, and even if Daniella Nowitz’s exquisite cinematography didn’t often suggest you’re peeking into a private world, constantly placing scenes inside the framing of doors and windows and curtains, the intimacy and nuances of Yiv and Haas’ performances would make “Asia” feel you’ve slipped into a quiet corner of the room. However, as much as the film feels like it’s so precisely capturing a particularly trying moment for the pair, the writer/director intricately builds in a considerate admiration for how Asia feels no greater pressure now as a mother than in less obviously anxious times, struggling to find time for her daughter while providing for them both with no one else around to ease the burden.
Well-aware of how self-reliance can coarsen people, Pribar not only keenly observes how this has shaped Asia and Vika’s relationship, but finds levity in their scrappy repartee as a result, as well as an intriguing subplot when the two let someone else into their bubble, with Asia recruiting Gabi (Tamir Mula), an orderly from work to help care for Vika when she’s on the clock. Although it’s moving to see the two feel safe enough to place their faith in someone else for a change, “Asia” honors them by showing how much they can trust their own judgment – in the case of Asia, leaning on hard-won lessons of the past to make the present feel less unimaginably painful, and for Vika, exercising an autonomy over her own situation that gives her the feeling she’s unquestionably become an adult. If a sense of independence can give her characters a satisfying catharsis, Pribar extends that feeling to an audience watching “Asia” with the sensation they’re watching a singular new voice.