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VENICE — A stuttering 19-year-old who’s required to do his civilian service in a correctional facility for difficult youngsters is practically forced to run away with an obstinate 17-year-old girl who lives there in They Have Escaped (He ovat paenneet), the second feature from Finnish director J.-P. Valkeapaa (The Visitor). Initially, these two teenagers find themselves boxed in by the conventions of what feels like a middle-of-the-road film about young runaways. But as the duo comes to terms with their own freedom and the constant threats to it from all sides, Escaped turns into a more impressionistic fairy tale full of dark twists and surprises. Twin premieres at Venice and Toronto should precede a healthy festival tour and a series of VOD and TV offers, with a couple of theatrical sales not out of the question.
Joni (Teppo Manner) is a mousy and extremely shy boy of almost 20, who’s been forced to work at a house where difficult young teenagers are placed — this in lieu of his military service, from which he went AWOL. He’s told on his first day he’ll go to prison if he escapes from his duties here. But of course such rules are made to be broken, if not directly by Joni then by the resident wild child, Raisa (Roosa Soderholm), whose bleached hair, bright-red lipstick and raccoon-like makeup are all pretty clear markers of her desire to be noticed and impose her personality.
Raisa wants to escape at any cost, Joni has a car that he uses to pick up the groceries for the institution’s canteen and it doesn’t take long before they embark on a trip together. Joni, who is made fun of because he stutters, remains practically silent, nodding much more than talking. He’d love to blend in with the furniture. Raisa’s his total opposite in every sense and of course opposites attract, especially after the punky blonde basically bribes the shy boy into sexual submission by putting his hands on her bare breasts before telling him: “Don’t tell on me.” Over the course of the first half-hour, They Have Escaped feels almost calculatedly cliched.
The dynamics thus seem crystal clear from the outset, though Valkeapaa risks — during an extremely banal series of scenes that start at a gas station’s fast-food counter — losing his audience by prolonging the clichés for too long and pushing them too far. Thankfully, there’s something about the film’s slightly uneasy atmosphere, with an unspecified, underlying tension that’s mainly derived from the creepily effective soundscape, that fascinates. Several short, nightmarish flashes, which could be flashbacks, flash-forwards or bad dreams, further help foreshadow that something more interesting lies ahead.
The more adults try to impose rules on the children in order to calm them down, the more they want to cut loose. The more rules they break, the angrier the adults become. It’s a vicious cycle that, in the closing reels, literally grows nasty after the duo trespasses onto private property and find themselves subsequently practically drowning in blood. The almost surreal quality of these scenes stands in stark contrast to the film’s opening and suggests on a much more visceral level how brutally teenagers can be lost in a world in which they are expected to act as adults but don’t (yet) know, understand or agree with the rules.
Newcomer Roosa is appropriately intense and greatly aided by her character’s over-the-top looks, while Manner is convincing as the meek geek for whom a first glimpse of female flesh is enough to fuel his desire to flaunt the rules.
The entire production, though clearly humble in terms of budget, often manages to maximize the impact of cinematographer Pietari Peltola‘s visuals and especially the sound and heterogeneous music selection, which help establish the film’s tricky tonal shift into much more primal territory.
Production companies: Helsinki Filmi, Revolver Amsterdam
Cast: Teppo Manner, Roosa Soderholm, Petteri Pennila, Pelle Heikkila
Director: J.-P. Valkeapaa
Screenplay: J.-P. Valkeapaa, Pilvi Peltola
Producer: Aleksi Bardy
Director of photography: Pietari Peltola
Production designer: Markku Patila
Costume designer: Tiina Wilen
Editor: Mervo Junkkonen
Music: Helge Slikker
Sales: Yellow Affair
No rating, 102 minutes
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