Ben (Shlomi Bertonov) lives in a lovely apartment in an up and coming Tel Aviv neighborhood with his boyfriend Raz (Ariel Wolf). Their Roomba cleans their floors every morning like clockwork as they enjoy their protein shakes and head off to the gym. At night they have a straight couple over for dinner, dance wildly, and reveal their plans to have a baby through surrogacy. They love the idea of raising the child in their multicultural environment but in the same breath imply positively that it’s gentrifying. Ben has earlier shown his care for the neighborhood by planting a tree on his street. They seem like a model gay couple in a modern world.
After the party, however, Ben looks out his window and sees a couple of his Eritrean immigrant neighbors leaning against his new sapling. He rushes out to ask them to stop and they comply. Something in Ben’s manner, however, suggests a little more anger than the situation calls for, especially when he walks away in a bit of a huff and subsequently calls the police. Furthermore, he lies by telling law enforcement that the city planted the tree. At this point, it’s easy to chalk it up to frustration. A little later, Ben hears a commotion outside and witnesses the police brutally beating one of the neighbors. He watches blankly and then goes to bed.
What follows in writer-director Idan Haguel’s remarkable exploration of white guilt and virtue signaling, Concerned Citizen, is extremely difficult to discuss in a review. One can easily expect the narrative to explore a gay couple’s journey to becoming parents and can easily follow that arc, but the story also comes with so many cracks which take it in another direction. It forces the viewer to question how we view the person at the center of a narrative. Do we even like them? Are they a good person?
Ben certainly feels a level of guilt for bringing harm to his neighbor, but what he does with his feelings left me shaken. I had to watch this film twice just to catch every little transgression, every little sleight of hand. I fell into the trap of wanting the best for two gay men hoping to have a child, that I too easily overlooked so many small things which added up to tell me that Idan Haguel has something else on his mind entirely.
First, he gets so many details exactly right. Bertonov and Wolf feel like a real couple, with the decline in sex which so many experience, because they actually are one. His cinematographer Guy Sahaf and editor Shauly Melamed have fantastic storytelling abilities in the way they slyly introduce the surroundings and how they foster Ben’s paranoia and ever-increasing levels of disgust. As the film progresses, Ben, who iis nitially so handsome, starts to look more gaunt, more angular, more sinister. It’s a fascinating and subtle transformation. Bertonov gives a terrific performance, reminding me of Al Pacino in Dog Day Afternoon. You can feel the heat and mounting tension on his face as the screws turn on him throughout.
As the film becomes more and more honest with its intentions, it has gone so far afield from its cute gayby storyline and morphs into something you might recognize more from some “Karen” level viral social media post instead. As such, it took me a minute to catch my breath. I looked at the screen and thought, “What have you done to my cute little gay movie?” But once I collected myself, I grew much more appreciative of this provocative, wise, in-your-face film which dares to ask if it’s important to have empathy or if it’s more important to let people know that you’re empathetic. Sound like someone you know? I thought so.
By Glenn Gaylord, Senior Film Critic
Concerned Citizen is now playing at IFC Center in New York and Laemmle Royal in Los Angeles, and is available on VOD via Apple TV & Prime Video.