More than once in the past few years, film director Tom Shoval has heard himself called "one of the great hopes of Israeli cinema." Now, he says, "I'm not so comfortable with that description." Gearing up to start shooting his first feature-length film at the end of February, he feels the load weighing heavily on his shoulders.

Shoval was born in Petah Tikva, a devoted son of the middle class. "If I had continued on the track I was being steered on, I'd surely be a bourgeois wage earner, living in the sleepy suburbs and looking for security in routine and stability."

Shoval discovered the world of cinema in early childhood. Petah Tikva didn't even have a movie theater then, but his father was a film distributor and took him to see quality films. Already at the age of seven he had dreamed about the first time he would shout "Action!"

He was a film major in high school, served in the army's film unit and then enrolled in the Sam Spiegel Film and Television School in Jerusalem. His graduation project, a short film called "Petah Tikva," is about a 60-year-old man named Julian who worked for many years in a small printing press and continued to report for work two months after he was fired. It's a touching film that won first prize at a festival of short films in Hong Kong.

Shoval graduated summa cum laude and a year later returned to Sam Spiegel and to his high school, this time as a teacher. He also wrote about film in newspapers and journals, directed videos and made short films at the Baboon Group, a collective of young, independent directors.

Like "Petah Tikva," his first feature film, "Youth," will deal with life in the country's outskirts and the fading middle class. The story revolves around two brothers, aged 17 and 19, who are also from Petah Tikva. They are coping with a family crisis brought on by growing economic distress. "That's the milieu I grew up in and about which I want to tell the story," Shoval says. The reality of life in the bedroom communities around the big city hasn't been properly dealt with in Israeli cinema, he says.

For the two leads, Shoval has cast two brothers with no acting experience. "At first it sounded like a huge gamble," he says. "I wanted authenticity. I was looking for a bond that could exist only between brothers who were coping with a situation resembling the one in the screenplay. I held auditions for months before I found them. They brought qualities that I didn't see in any professional actor."

Experienced actors will play the other parts, but Shoval says his ambition is to create "an authentic, emotional experience in the realistic sense; to try to privatize real life onto the screen."

Success for Shoval will be gauged in box-office terms; he hopes "Youth" won't be "another film-festival or Cinematheque movie but one that will draw an audience."

He pushes aside thoughts about failure. "I still feel that my preoccupation with film is a kind of adventure, a path out of the box and the way of life I was steered on. If I don't make good, I'll have to go back to Petah Tikva, to the life of the characters at the center of my stories. And that of course is totally out of the question."