Attempting to understand the complex origins of the Palestinian/Israeli issue through the simplistic if well-meaning lens of this adaptation of Amos Oz's novel Panther in the Basement
is like trying to grasp the nuances of the civil rights movement by watching Stand by Me
. Both films are period pieces set during momentous times, and both focus on viewing their respective historical backgrounds through the eyes of (presumably) soon-to-be corrupted innocents. But whereas Stand by Me
succeeded in imparting the temper of the times (specifically, 1959) via an emotionally honest script and top-drawer acting from its youthful leads, The Little Traitor
falls resoundingly flat for exactly the opposite reasons. Set in the British Mandate of Palestine in the summer of 1947, the film features 12-year-old Proffy (Port), who is flush with the onset of puberty, cusp-of-teen rebellion, and general precocity but lacks the socially connective means to grasp the true import of the events going on around him. It's the eve of the withdrawal of British troops and also the eve of the partitioning of the fledgling state of Israel, but Proffy is more interested in using his binoculars to spy on the comely girl next door than he is in spying on the "hated British." That changes – slightly – when Proffy, late for curfew, is accosted by a friendly British sergeant named Dunlop (Molina, ruddy-cheeked and twinkle-eyed but miscast nonetheless), who takes the boy under his bumbershoot and educates him – even more slightly – on how to go about getting the girl, how to speak like a Britcliché ("indubitably!"), and why young Jews in prepartitioned Israel shouldn't fraternize with noncoms. There's also a subplot – oh, how slight it is! – about some vague cloak-and-dagger goings-on (Proffy's parents are aiding incoming Jews displaced by the war in Europe) and, bizarrely, a going-nowhere sequence that has Proffy and his pals making a nail-bomb IED with which to attack British troops. None of this makes The Little Traitor
anything more than a gratingly rose-colored and mawkish tale of youthful political indiscretions, puppy love, and good, old-fashioned bad acting. The film slams to a halt every time Port opens his mouth and widens his gee-willikers peepers; since he's the titular traitor and is in virtually every scene, Roth's film never has much of a chance. It's certainly not the Truffaut-esque roman à clef it was obviously intended to be, but outside of The Little Thief
, really, what is?