The boy-meets-girl romance gets a gender-bending spin in “Aviva,” writer and director Boaz Yakin’s wildly original dance drama, which screens in virtual cinemas starting June 12. (The film is also scheduled to be available on the PrideFLIX platform this month).
The film’s bold conceit is that the lovers, Aviva and Eden, are each played by both a man and woman. As such, the man (Tyler Phillips) and woman Eden (Bobbi Jene Smith) meet(s) the woman (Zina Zinchenko) and man Aviva (Or Schraiber). It’s not as complicated as it sounds; as the relationship develops, the characters become interchangeable, with the central couple reconfiguring and overlapping. They also dance, dance, dance. Three of the principal actors — Zina Zinchencko, Bobbi Jene Smith and Or Schraiber — are former members of Israel’s Batsheva Dance Company. Smith and Schraiber are also former lovers in real life; they were featured in the 2017 documentary “Bobbi Jene.”
The film is a bit of a meta experience, with the actor-dancers directly addressing the camera at times. One such instance is an amusing scene where Phillips suggests that a particular moment in the narrative would be a good place for the characters to break out into song, like in a musical. Yakin also introduces almost every character by shooting them in the nude, suggesting, perhaps, that this is how they are “born” into the drama.
The story begins when a mutual friend, Nissan (Jonathan Mastrojohn), suggests Aviva and Eden connect via email. After some chatty exchanges, Aviva agrees to come to New York to meet Eden in person. There is a glorious dance featuring a euphoric Aviva twirling through the streets of Paris while the elated Eden sways through the streets of New York. Their movements are in parallel in this exquisitely choreographed sequence.
Yakin also features an early montage, entitled “Anatomy of a Kiss” featuring a series of episodes that show how Eden and Aviva were born, grew up, become teens who learned about love and sex and traditional gender roles. Another scene, recounted as a flashback of lost childhood innocence explores how gender can be more complicated.
But it is the film’s central storyline that really plays with gender fluidity and permutations. To wit, while the man Eden and woman Aviva have sex in New York, it is the woman Eden who tells the woman Aviva that she needs some “time out with the guys” and heads to a bar where a fabulous dance number takes place. When Eden leaves the bar, he is a man and returns home to the man Aviva to have sex.
Eventually the drama between the characters pivots on Aviva needing to marry Eden to stay in America. While Eden is initially reluctant to wed, Aviva insists that being together legally will allow them to explore their love. The couple does tie the knot.
“Aviva” posits that love should not intimidate but inspire. While the couple talks about the experience of love, they also have a fight that leads to a breakup. Yakin then explores how love shifts and changes between the characters as both Aviva and Eden have sex with other people in threesomes that involve two women and a man in Aviva’s case, and two men and a woman in Eden’s. These erotic encounters magnify the ways men and women, gay and straight relate to each other.
Yakin may be inventive in how he depicts the id and alter egos on screen, but at times “Aviva” feels like a stunt, albeit a sexy, clever one. Because the characters are detached from each other, there is a lack of emotional investment in the couple staying together. The most interesting section of the film has the man Eden tortured by his thoughts and engaged in an internal struggle with the woman Eden.
There are some dazzling sequences — from a sensual dance between Aviva and Philippe (Isaias Santamaria), to an endearing rap sequence featuring young kids dancing on the subway to Coney Island, to a stunning piece of choreography where Eden mimics an entire episode of arriving at the airport and flying to Los Angeles — but these episodes can also feel precious or pretentious.
The dancing is the best reason to see “Aviva” and the performance scenes are absolutely spectacular. Bobbi Jene Smith, who produced and choreographed the film, is a standout, and Or Schraiber, who co-choreographed, is equally strong. However, Taylor Phillips is a bit flat in his line readings, which is disappointing as his character is the most developed.
Nevertheless, the performers are gorgeous, which seems appropriate for a romance that is ultimately, only skin-deep.