Review: Next to Her ★★★★ – Powerful game-changer about mental illness based on real-life experience

nex to her Asaf Korman’s powerful, challenging film, with script by his wife Liron Ben Shlush, who also stars alongside Dana Ivgy and Yaakov Zada Daniel, explores the symbiotic relationship between 27-year-old Chelli, sole carer for her mentally-challenged younger sister Gabby (24), until she is forced to find her part-time daycare and at the same time embarks on a relationship with Zohar a new work colleague. Ben-Shlush based her story on her own experience of having a mentally disabled sister and worked closely with friend and co-star Dana Ivgy on her role.

The result of the real-life three-way close relationship between Director Korman and his two lead actors is a film that is as painful as it is beautiful in its uncompromising treatment of living with mental illness. Ben Shlush’s strength lies in taking her own experience as a starting point to develop a new story where the boundaries between carer and dependent are blurred. Chelli is no saint but a troubled and difficult young woman with her own needs and demands and failure to recognise boundaries and Ben Shlush pulls no punches in writing and portraying her flaws.

Chelli and Gabby live together in a dark, dingy chaotic apartment, Chelli in sole charge of her sister since their mother has abandoned the responsibility of caring for Gabby that she cannot face. The pair’s lives are closely intertwined, touchingly and sometimes uncomfortably demonstrated by the way they are so often physically intertwined, curled together on the sofa watching films, sleeping and taking baths together and even sharing toothbrushes.

It’s soon evident that Chelli is as dependent on Gabby as her vulnerable younger sister is on her. Ivgy’s Gabby is much more than a wild child, head-banging, out of control and without boundaries – no wonder the neighbours’ complaints force Chelli to find daycare for her, rather than leaving her locked up home alone. But watching her relate to others and not just to Chelli helps the viewer to ‘meet’ her on her own terms – as who she is, rather than what she can never be. Indeed Gabby soon begins to relate to the other residents of the daycare centre (in scenes where actors with special needs give moving performances); and it’s not long before the mutual affection that develops between Gabby and Sveta, who runs the daycare centre, makes Chelli feel uneasy pangs of jealousy.

Perhaps this is one reason why Chelli develops a relationship with the sensitive Zohar, the supply PE teacher at the school where she works. When she brings him home to meet Gabby, he too proves able to relate to her and when he leaves his mother’s home to move in, an uneasy ménage à trois develops. It is again largely Chelli’s own neediness that sets off the unsettling chain of events that follows, where all three cross boundaries.

Korman’s direction and the atmospheric cinematography and soundscape ensure total immersion in the world he creates with his actors. The truth in Ivgy’s extraordinarily naturalistic performance is a testament to the time she spent working in the home where Ben Shlush’s sister lived. Ben Shlush herself creates a complicated young woman in Chelli, caring and needy, selfless and selfish, loveable and spiky. So she is full of contradictions and shaped by the difficult cards that have been dealt to her, the duties she has not shirked. It’s not an easy film to watch, but its power and truth ensures that it is impossible not to be drawn in.

It has been deservedly hugely successful in Israel and wherever it has been seen, both as a powerful and accomplished film and for its understanding of mental illlness and the complexities of caring relationships, of any sort.

By Judi Herman

Next to Her can be watched on BFI Player for £6 or at the following screenings:

Friday 25 – Wednesday 30 March, times vary, £7.50, at MAC Birmingham, B12 9QH; 0121 446 3232.

Sunday 20 March, 8pm, £8.50, at Glasgow Film Theatre, G3 6RB; 0141 332 6535.

Hear our interview with Dana Ivgy