The characters in Aviva, writer-director Boaz Yakin’s experimental self-chronicle-meets-Carnal Knowledge update, have a lot of sex. They copulate passionately in suburban teenage bedrooms and expensive downtown lofts, furtively in the backrooms of bars and against nightclub walls, in versions both vanilla and 50-gray-shaded, positions both missionary and magnificently gymnastic, in twos and, occasionally, threes. They are comfortable enough with their bodies to frequently lounge around in the altogether; in fact, most of the people who show up are casually, inexplicably nude at one point or another. They are in touch with their male and female sides — literally, in fact. (More on that in a moment.) And when they aren’t expressing themselves sexually, they’re still communicating their love and lust and rage and sorrow and joy physically. The only thing they like to do more than getting it on is to dance. You think climaxing is the pinnacle of ecstasy? Try moving together with a dozen other beautiful people in perfect, limb-synced harmony.
A collaboration between Yakin and choreographer Bobbi Jene Smith, this portrait of a relationship between an American named Eden (Tyler Phillips) and a French citizen named Aviva (Zina Zinchenko) is, at its essence, a love story. And one that, for the filmmaker who gave us Fresh and Remember the Titans, is purposefully, uncomfortably close to home: He’s admitted that his depression and his own marriage to director Alma Har’el (Honey Boy) were big parts of the movie’s inspirational stew. But it begins with a feint. When we meet Eden, “he” is a woman played by Smith, naturally lounging au naturel and breaking the fourth wall. These are the cameras that will be following our couple; these words “she” is saying were written by a man. They have hired dancers to perform the roles, because it was “more viable for the dancers to pull off the acting required then vice versa” — a warning that, given some of the line readings, will prove to be pertinent. It will be romantic, but it won’t be your typical boy-meets-girl romance. Aviva has bigger things on it mind, such as: What does “boy” and “girl” even mean?
Because as anyone familiar with Aristophanes’ Myth or Hedwig and the Angry Inch‘s “The Origins of Love” will tell you, people have male and female sides that are constantly seeking to reunite with each other. Yakin & co. take this notion one step further by having a man and woman play Eden, and a woman and a man (Or Shraiber) play Aviva. Actors will randomly switch off and sub in as the characters, sometimes mid-coitus. Later, the two Edens and Avivas will respectively argue with their counterparts and offer comfort during times of heartbreak. They will also begin to join in when one of their halves is having sex with their significant other(s) and various other partners, which quickly brings new meaning to the term “go fuck yourself.”
It’s a unique way of viewing the internal schisms every human being feels, as well as exploring the different sides that being smitten with someone brings out while throwing the entire notion of gender out the window. Aviva — the palindrome certainly isn’t accidental — uses the tag-team casting to fuel what is a genuinely thrilling, Kinsey-scale–shattering conceptual gambit. It’s also the cause of a lot of confusion as well, as viewers will occasionally finding themselves trying to figure out who’s zooming who, and whether these characters have taken one step forward or one giant leap backwards. Love is always complicated, and so is identity, but sometimes you wonder whether such bells and whistles aren’t drowning out the storytelling itself. It’s a gossamer-thin fine line between imaginative play, which Yakin is definitely taking full advantage of here, and indulgence. One person’s poetry is another’s pretentiousness, and vice versa. (Yes, we know: says the writer who just brought up Plato’s Symposium. Physician, heal thyself.)
What does get you hot and bothered isn’t the switcheroos or the sex, which runs the gamut from suggestively steamy to graphic, but the dancing. Each of the Edens and Avivas get solos and pas de deux, suddenly breaking into giddy racing along city streets when their transatlantic correspondence begins, and later becoming a tangle of body parts once Aviva moves to be with Eden in New York. Plus there are goosebump-inducing group scenes, including a night out with the “bros” that turns into a bluesy outtake from Seven Brides for Seven Brothers and a wedding sequence that morphs into something like a horah gone wild. Smith is an extraordinary dancer — her pantomime of a traveler on an airplane would be a showstopper anywhere — but she’s an even better choreographer. One of the great pleasures of moviegoing is watching bodies in motion, and she fills Yakin’s self-exploration with artists exquisitely writhing, gliding, clapping, stomping, vamping and contorting in perfect rhythm. Even when the film critiques musicals, as when Eden disses the notion of breaking into song before kiboshing a potential Times Square number, it’s still a vibrant if offbeat example of the form.
Those scenes don’t make up for how maddening Aviva can get in the name of genderfuckery and navel-gazing, yet they do play into the ultimate endgame Yakin is after. There is a sense of healing — emotional, personal, psychic, definitely and defiantly sexual — that this filmmaker seems to be chasing. The ultimate goal, however, is really just casting away creative shackles and just letting it all hang out without professional worry. Yakin has assuredly done that. You don’t need to know the backstory of a Hollywood screenwriter and sought-after director who ultimately found that calling to be somewhat lacking. You just need to know that this artist found a groove that’s let him/her get somethings off his/her chest.