Highway to Swell: A closeted gay man takes a life-changing vacation.
Highway to Swell: A closeted gay man takes a life-changing vacation.

Ten years ago, there was Yossi & Jagger, a film about two soldiers in the Israeli army who became lovers, too soon separated by death. Now director Eytan Fox offers Yossi, the continued story of the title character, who’s now nearly 34 and a cardiologist. A bloated, mopey—and closeted—cardiologist. He’s heavy with his secret; he’s heavy with grief. And though there are suspicions among the hospital staff that he’s gay, that doesn’t stop another doctor from trying to get Yossi laid (by a woman) and a female nurse from asking him on a date. He wearily goes along with things, at least as far as he’s able to take them.

Ohad Knoller plays Yossi in both films, and his portrayal imbues the character with a walking-woundedness so thorough you drag along with him (even if you haven’t seen the first film and don’t know why he’s so depressed until it’s smoothly revealed about halfway through the movie). He spends his nights alone, watching TV or porn, or looking at photos of his deceased boyfriend. At his lowest point, Yossi is lurking on an online hook-up site when he’s IMed by someone who’s interested. Yossi sends the guy an old photo and is invited over. The host is handsome, cut, half-naked, has wine ready—and quickly calls Yossi on his outdated pic. “How about you go down on me and we call it a night?” he says. Ouch.

But then a wondrous thing happens—or at least something that’s pretty difficult to pull off. Fox and first-time scripter Itay Segal (whose screenplay is terrifically naturalistic) gradually move the tone from despondency to hopefulness. Yossi’s supervisor is concerned he hasn’t taken a vacation (this film is clearly not American), so Yossi sets out for Sinai despite the government warning of its dangers. Before he hits the road, though, he encounters some young soldiers in a fast-food restaurant and overhears that they’ve missed their bus to a place that’s on his way. They accept his offer of a ride, and he somewhat amusingly tolerates their rambunctiousness, despite their derogatory use of words such as “gay” and “homo” toward each other.

Once they reach their waterfront hotel, the kids tell Yossi he should stick around. He initially refuses but changes his mind, and it’s at this point the film becomes so relaxed you’ll practically feel your shoulders melting. Yossi gets a great hotel room, reads by the pool (though his book of choice is Death in Venice), talks about massages with the maybe-gay and maybe-interested Tom (Oz Zehavi), and enjoys drinks at the hotel’s cheesy happenings. He slowly opens up.

A prominent theme of Yossi is secrecy and the depression that sinks in when one doesn’t feel free to be oneself. That awful sensation extends from Yossi’s workplace to a talk he has with his lover’s parents after the dead man’s mother happens to come into the hospital for a heart evaluation. (The revealing discussion is at once squirm-inducing, touching, and sad.) To watch Yossi emerge from his self-imposed shell and attempt to find happiness again, though, is about as uplifting as a film can get. The lightness will linger long after the credits roll.