(NR) 2 1/2 stars

(NR) 2 1/2 stars
Except for a few sex scenes, Arik Kaplun"s resolutely cheerful black comedy would have been right at home at this year"s Heartland Film Festival. Set in 1991, Yana"s Friends follows the lives of a group of recent Russian immigrants trying to carve a niche for themselves in Israel at the height of the Gulf War. As SCUD missiles begin to fall nightly, Yana (Evelyn Kaplun - a dead-ringer for the young Mia Farrow) and her husband move into a flat in a Tel Aviv apartment building that they share with swarthy young videographer Eli (Nir Levi). Yana"s husband soon steals the couple"s money and flees to Russia, leaving Yana pregnant and hugely in debt. Eli becomes obsessed with his sweet-faced flatmate, and documents her struggles on video. Meanwhile, Alik and Mila, another ÈmigrÈ couple in the building, try to find ways to make ends meet in Israel with a baby and Mila"s wheelchair-bound father Yitzhak in tow. Alik hatches a scheme to capitalize on Yitzhak"s war veteran status by posing him as a beggar on a busy street corner, and soon comes into competition with another panhandler, accordion player Yuri. This conflict is played for laughs, but I could find nothing amusing about two old men scrabbling over a few shekels. The situation is further complicated when it is revealed that Alik and Mila"s hardhearted old landlady Rosa is Yitzhak"s long-lost wartime lover. If this reunion comes off as contrived on paper, it seems even more of a stretch onscreen. The best moments of Yana"s Friends come during the unlikely courtship between Yana and Eli that unfolds as they don their gas masks each night, alternately huddling in fear of poison gas attacks, and having passionate sex illuminated by the bombs exploding in the sky overhead. For Yana and Eli, the air raid sirens become part of the rhythm of their daily lives, while Alik and Mila, unable to cope with life during war, make plans to move to the United States. Yana"s Friends wouldn"t have won so much acclaim as a "life-affirming" film if it didn"t have a happy ending, which, of course, it dutifully provides. The film is worth watching for the fine character acting and occasional laughs, but falls short of providing fresh insights. In Hebrew and Russian with English subtitles. At Castleton Arts for one week only. Yana"s Friends will also be shown at the Jewish Community Center on Nov. 3 at 3 p.m. Don"t miss Promises, a groundbreaking documentary following the experiences of seven Israeli and Palestinian children, showing at the JCC at 7 p.m. on Nov. 9.

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