Dispatch From the Berlinale #2: Nightmare Youth
If children are our future, then get ready for some future shock. The films at Berlin were full of troubled parents and their troubling kids, with uncertainly being the only constant among unstable relatives. So much for blood ties: the nuclear family is virtually radioactive.
You think modern life is stressful? Just watch Casey Affleck’s filmmaking debut Light of My Life, a post-apocalyptic father-daughter survivalist thriller in a world where women have been wiped out by a female plague. Single dad Affleck must protect his 11-year-old girl from predatory males by camping out in the wilderness, to avoid prying eyes and desperate measures. Leave No Trace meets Children of Men, as they say in the pitch meeting.
Affleck stars in the low-key, low-budget, lo-fi sci-fi drama, which he also happened to write, direct, and produce. It’s a slow but solid fable, uneven in pacing but deft in maintaining a steady simmer of menace dotted with sporadic bursts of violence. More intriguing is how this obvious passion project reflects the Oscar-winner himself, dogged by reports of sexual assault dating back to 2010. A #MeToo mea culpa? Possibly, although the fact that this exercise in woke masculinity requires a lady holocaust is more than a little darkly ironic. In that long-ago time before the Weinstein scandal, Light of My Life would have had a splashy Sundance debut. Instead, the film is quietly making its world premiere in Europe, far from an American press that might have knee-jerk excoriated this earnest effort in personal rehabilitation.
Affluent Horse Rancher Catherine Deneuve
More grounded in reality but no less unsettling was André Téchiné’s elegant domestic chiller Farewell to the Night. Affluent horse rancher Catherine Deneuve discovers that the moody, rarely-seen Gallic grandson paying her a surprise visit has actually become an out-of-nowhere radicalized Muslim. The septuagenarian Téchiné gives disaffected French millennials an empathetic shake, although shoddy plotting makes the story progressively harder to swallow. Not helping matters is the film’s unshakable whiff of “Why don’t these kids appreciate how good they have it?” geriatric paranoia.
Being the Berlinale, the festival also had some German-language kinder-angst. The single mom drama I Was at Home, But… portrayed the ups and downs of raising a hell-raiser: a grade-school boy prone to running away, hurting his foot, and rough-housing with his little sister a little too roughly. Angela Schanelec’s inert drama is the product of the Berliner Schule, a film movement that dwells on quotidian episodes and moments of quiet intensity. In this case, Schanelec leans a bit too heavily on the quotidian, allowing her inner Bresson to indulge wooden actors, stilted line-reading, and spare plotting. She even bookends the movie with shots of a feral dog and a judgmental donkey. Non-sequitor oddity or leaden symbolism? Either way, it’s a dud move.
Gun-crazy teens blasted their way into the festival, too. Claudio Giovannesi turned Gomorra author Roberto Saviano’s 2010 kid gangsters novel La Paranza dei Bambini into the conventional but diverting crime drama Piranhas. A gaggle of Vespa-straddling boys cruise the streets of their Italian village, staring down a dirt-poor life unless they cozy up to the mob. Soon enough, at the tender age of 15, they’re peddling hash to the local college kids while shaking down the small business owners for collection money. That initial rush of excitement eventually sours into a dull grind, though, as they slowly realize that having cash doesn’t change the fact that they’re still trapped in a dead-end existence.
Far more powerful as a pure condemnation of amoral youth was the wildly harrowing Monos. Alejandro Landes’ gonzo look at a paramilitary unit too baby-faced to be believed. An octet of freshly pubescent kids with names like Rambo and Smurf tote AK-47s through the mountains and jungles of Colombia, with an American hostage (Julianne Nicholson) in tow. When duty calls, what little discipline they barely attained then curdles into power-plays, ritual punishments, self-sacrifice, and bare-chested displays of teeth-grinding mayhem. Wielding his camera with almost aphrodisiacal glee, Landes weaves a bracingly-sensual, shockingly beautiful descent into madness that borders at times on purely abstract images of hallucinatory power. Imagine the High School Musical kids in an update of Apocalypse Now. Talk about growing up fast.