'Seduce Me' ('Zapelji Me'): Film Review

Courtesy of Televizija Slovenija
Balkan Oscar contender charms but fails to seduce.

Slovenia's contender for the Academy Awards is a stark portrait of tough love between two young factory workers with painful secrets

A pair of emotionally scarred 19-year-olds seek refuge from a harsh adult world in each other's arms in Slovenia's official Oscar candidate for the Best Foreign Language Film category. The debut feature from writer-director Marko Santic is a rites-of-passage love story which touches on similar dramatic terrain as classic juvenile dramas like Rebel Without a Cause, The 400 Blows and The Graduate. It will no doubt earn extra exposure thanks to its Oscar connection, but otherwise Seduce Me feels like a low-voltage festival movie, as earnest and self-absorbed as its adolescent protagonists.

Janko Mandic stars as Luka, a sensitive young man who is finally facing an independent life after nine years in a residential center for troubled teens. Aided by a kindly social worker, he finds a room to sublet and a lowly job at a meat processing factory, where his co-workers are mostly hostile older men. He also befriends Ajda (Nina Rakovec), a fellow 19-year-old with a rapacious sexual appetite and a desperate yearning to escape her crappy life. Soon, the pair are having hungry sex at work, at home, in locker rooms and parking lots. Refreshingly, it is the female lead who dominates in sexual matters.

A fraught return visit to his family home, nestled in picturesque mountain lakeland, throws up some incomplete clues to Luka's walking-wounded state. The bitter mother who abandoned him a decade ago offers no solace, and now appears intent on smoking and drinking herself into an early grave. Another relative also shares the bombshell secret that his father, who he long believed to be dead, is actually still alive and bringing up a second family. So Luka steels himself to track down dad, but their awkward encounter only deepens his sense of rejection.

Mostly shooting in hand-held, docu-drama style, Santic observes all these crossed wires and tiny injuries with an admirable lack of editorial judgment, though he clearly sympathizes with his hero's pain. Above all, Luka craves love, but Ajda seems to want only sex. She also harbors her own hurtful secrets, so an explosion becomes inevitable. Their big bust-up coincides with turbulence at work, when Luka's noble attempts to do the right thing only bring him into violent conflict with his corrupt adult co-workers. No good deed goes unpunished.

Although troubled young men and women looking for love in all the wrong places have long been a staple of social-realist cinema, Santic does little to refresh such familiar material. Seduce Me feels underexplained and undercooked, a small story in a drab setting. The emotional journey concludes with a nod towards redemption and some minor revelations, but no real surprises. That said, the two leads both have a charming screen presence while Davor Herceg's spare, mournful score adds subtle emotional shading. Santic already has impressive technical craft for a debut director, but next time he needs to combine it with more passion and originality.

Production company: Televizija Slovenija
Cast: Janko Mandic, Nina Rakovec, Natasa Barbara Gracner, Peter Musevski, Dario Varga, Primoz Pirnat
Director: Marko Santic
Producer: Mateja Erika Smisl
Screenwriter: Marko Santic
Cinematographer: Marko Kocevar
Editor: Jurij Moškon
Music: Davor Herceg
Sales company: Televizija Slovenija

No rating, 83 minutes

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