'Eau Zoo': Turin Review

Holden Wallace
The kids aren't alright

Teenagers rise up against the rules of a cult-like island community in this Belgian thriller by first-time writer-director Emilie Verhamme

Enforced childhood innocence leads to some very dark places in this atmospheric debut feature by the young Belgian writer-director Emilie Verhamme, which takes place in a remote island community where teenagers are kept under strict control by their elders. A blend of dystopian thriller, love story and philosophical fable, Eau Zoo does not quite deliver on the rich dramatic potential of its premise. But it is full of intriguing ideas, intense young actors and poetic flourishes. Following its international premier at the Turin Film Festival last week, further festival interest seems likely, with niche distribution possible among Francophone audiences and European arthouse fans.

Martin (Martin Nissen) and Lou (Margaux Lonnberg) are adolescent sweethearts negotiating the bumpy path of young love in an unnamed European island. But something is rotten in this quaint little fishing community. Martin's paranoid father (Clément Bertrand) insists hostile invasion from the mainland is imminent, enlisting his son to constantly check secret hide-outs and set traps for imaginary enemies. The other adults are less manic but equally controlling, locking their children up in a warehouse dormitory overnight to protect them from some unspecified phantom menace.

The spare, elliptical script remains fuzzy about the group's creed, but they seem to fall midway between an Amish-style Christian sect and a millennial survivalist cult. These kids are smart enough to realize they are effectively prisoners, and have even set up their own secret alternative community led by Colin (Clément Louis, who has the cruel good looks of a young Jude Law). Staged suicides and illicit boats to the mainland are common escape tactics. But inter-generational tensions turn toxic when a new decree from the elders bans girls of 18 or under from leaving the island. To ensure the group's survival, Lou and her teenage peers will now be hastily forced into arranged marriages with middle-aged husbands.

Verhamme cites JD Salinger's The Catcher In The Rye as a key influence on her screenplay, though we might also add The Wicker Man, The Handmaid's Tale and even The Hunger Games as distant ancestors in their depictions of generational friction and authoritarian communities. Without getting into spoilers, there are echoes of Romeo and Juliet in the tragic finale too. From arranged marriages to religious cults to wartime resistance groups, the real-life resonances in Eau Zoo hang in the air long after the movie's slender running time expires.

Shot on a very tight budget, Eau Zoo extracts an impressive amount of psychological and emotional sizzle from its limited resources and intense young cast. Verhamme shoots in the same raw, jumpy, docu-realist style as her 2012 Cannes short Cockaigne, but with sporadic digressions into arty surrealism, notably slow-mo time-reversed shots that hint at the queasy disorientation of life in a stifling island commune.

Sadly, Verhamme loses focus a little in the final act with various treacherous twists that feel more engineered than dramatically necessary, clouding motivation and diffusing tension. Even so, Eau Zoo is an absorbing and handsome debut that points towards a bold new auteur emerging from the same tiny cinematic nation that gave us both Jean-Claude Van Damme and the Dardennes brothers.

Production company: Holden Wallace
Cast: Martin Nissen, Margaux Lonnberg, Clément Louis, Clément Bertrand, Delphine Girard
Director, producer, screenwriter, editor: Emilie Verhamme
Cinematographer: Alex Moyroud
Art director: Tatiana Smadja
Music: Stimming
Sales company: Holden Wallace, Belgium

No rating, 78 minutes

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