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Petty crime leads inexorably to serious punishment in this stark character study from the Baltic state of Latvia, a contemporary docudrama rooted in the social realist tradition of Ken Loach, Lynne Ramsay or the Dardenne brothers. Named after its teenage protagonist and loosely inspired by a real juvenile delinquent case, Modris is a solid dramatic debut from young documentarian Juris Kursietis, albeit one that remains safely within the established discomfort zone of its genre, reaffirming the rules rather than rewriting them.
All the same, this formal familiarity may actually help the film’s prospects overseas, especially on the festival circuit, where it has already been well received. The setting and dialogue may be alien to non-Latvian viewers, but the hard-knock life story has deep-rooted cinematic lineage, plus plenty of relatable real-life resonance in every country on Earth. A co-production with Greece and Germany, Modris screened to a hometown crowd at the Riga International Film Festival earlier this month.
Modris (Kristers Piksa) is an antisocial, 17-year-old single child with limited interests beyond illegal graffiti tagging and stealing small change from his single mother (Rezija Kalnina) to feed his slot-machine habit. Relations at home are a constant battle at the best of times. But when Modris steals and pawns her electric heater in the icy depths of winter, Mom finally snaps, reporting her own son to the police.
Intended as a wake-up call, the resulting court case forces Modris to attend a youth probation center, where he is duped and bullied into breaking the terms of his parole. With every careless misstep, he edges closer to prison, following in the footsteps of the long-absent father he has never met. His clandestine attempts to track down his father throw up a heart-tugging subplot that might have been more substantial, especially as his absence is plainly presented as the root cause of Modris’ psychological wounds. Dad is very much the elephant not in the room.
But Modris is also his own worst enemy, sabotaging potentially positive steps with thoughtless rudeness and reflex suspicion toward the kindness of strangers. Everything he does, from riding trains without tickets to mistreating his eternally patient would-be girlfriend (Sabine Trumsina) only succeeds in amplifying his alienation.
Gaunt and gangly, young unknown Piksa is well cast as Modris, combining the authentically angular awkwardness of a genuine adolescent with flinty glints of a young De Niro or Depardieu. His perpetually passive expression is rarely more than a smirk away from sulky boredom, but he still manages to suggest wounded pride lies beneath the blank surface. It would seem Kursietis is not courting our approval for such an aimlessly selfish antihero, but he succeeds in earning our empathy.
Shooting long, mobile, naturalistic takes in actual street settings, Kursietis keeps it real, never stooping to contrived melodrama to spice up his low-key story. That said, the bleak tone does drag in places, with too little warmth or humor to offset the relentless misery. Aside from a brief burst of rough outdoor sex and a fleeting but quietly magical encounter with a choir, Modris appears disconnected from anything resembling joy. Even Ken Loach’s characters are allowed to laugh and dance occasionally between punishment beatings from the evil forces of capitalism.
Modris is a thoughtful first feature from a serious young director, honoring a grand tradition of cinema as social engagement rather than entertainment. If this austere little story feels overly familiar, that is partly because it is, but also because the issues it addresses never get old.
Production companies: Red Dot Media, Boo Productions, Sutor Kolonko
Cast: Kristers Piksa, Rezija Kalnina, Inese Pudza, Sabine Trumsina, Laura Jeruma, Alfreds Sebris, Vjaceslavs Sellars, Kaspars Zvigulis, Lauris Dzelzitis
Director, screenwriter: Juris Kursietis
Producers: Vicky Miha, Juris Kursietis, Ingmar Trost
Cinematographer: Bogumil Godfrejow
Editor: Yorgos Mavropsaridis
Music: Liga Celma-Kursiete
Sales company: Red Dot Media, Riga
No rating, 98 minutes
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