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A young dad-to-be’s feelings of inadequacy lead him down the path of bodybuilding and steroids in Goliath, the impressive sophomore feature from Swiss-German director Dominik Locher. While the narrative might be quite familiar, there is a sincere and lived-in quality to the story and the characters that elevates it above similar material, with young actors Sven Schelker (The Circle) and Jasna Fritzi Bauer (Axolotl Overkill), as the working-class future parents, delivering subtle and sensitive work even when their characters are anything but. After its premiere in the international competition in Locarno, this should see interest from other major festivals as well as theatrical audiences in especially Mitteleuropa.
The film’s title of course recalls the Biblical battle of David versus Goliath, who might have been a giant but who lost to the little one in the end. So Locher isn’t exactly keeping the outcome of all that bulking up of the initially quite scrawny protagonist — called David, natch — a secret for viewers, thus turning the story into something of a cautionary tale, albeit one populated with real-feeling people rather than schematic clichés. The title further suggests what the pic will investigate through its clever use of colors, as when it first appears onscreen against a solid black background and the letters go from pink to baby blue. This foreshadows not only the upcoming arrival of a baby but also that filmmaker is interested in exploring how traditional male and female roles, represented by these colors, might result in a Goliath-like loss.
The first shot of the movie is equally telling as we see David (Schelker) in the tub with his girlfriend, Jessy (Bauer). She caresses his face, and he seems like a quite tender and certainly loved young man. But his first words, in the subsequent sex scene, are “What’s wrong?,” which he utters when his head comes up for air from between Jessy’s legs. His placement there is hardly incidental, as she confesses that she’s pregnant, which will cause David to think about his new role as protector of not only himself and maybe Jessy but his family. When he’s provoked when they go out later, he finds himself at the hospital with blood all over his face, realizing he can’t even protect himself, which sets in motion his desire to beef up.
From the title and the first scenes, it is already obvious that Locher is someone who pays an incredible amount of attention to details that can help reinforce his story. David is a working-class young man, for example, who has a low office job at a nuclear plant outside of Zurich, another subtle hint that the protagonist is heading for a dead end, as it was decided in 2011 that nuclear power will gradually be phased out completely in Switzerland. And Jessy hopes to become a makeup artist and is trying to put a portfolio together, which suggests not only that she’s interested in physical transformations — which connects her to David, who’s looking to do the same with his bodybuilding — but also that there are at least two layers to each person: the one the outside sees and also our true selves, underneath and perhaps not so easily visible.
When things don’t go fast enough for the average-built David, he asks his bulky co-worker Ludo (Jose Barros) to help him procure steroids, which he initially refuses but finally does. Of course these help him turn into a more hulking presence, but they also start influencing David’s behavior and sexual performance and result in a wall of secrecy he has to erect around himself in order to keep his girlfriend from finding out what he’s really doing.
In order to compensate for that wall, and probably to convince himself that everything is okay and he’s doing it for the right reasons, David proposes to Jessy in one of the film’s best scenes. The young and accidentally pregnant lovebirds are on the nondescript roof of their nondescript apartment building somewhere in nondescript Swiss-German suburbia. It’s cold, damp and has probably just rained, as David has to dry a plastic chair for Jessy to sit on before he proposes. “I will be the best dad ever,” he says, before presenting her with the ring. Jessy says nothing but looks cold and uncomfortable. Some smoke from a chimney wafts through the image before she finally decides to offer him her finger, wordlessly. With barely any dialogue and ace work from especially the cinematographer and production designer, Locher manages to convey so much about who these people are, where they come from, what they want out of life, dream about and why they do what they do.
Another example (spoiler ahead): When David finally confesses to Jessy that he’s been using steroids again, they are in a car, which feels claustrophobic and almost like a confessional. When David has put everything out in the open, Locher cuts to a shot of Jessy, sitting there, wordlessly. They are close to a station and behind her in the background, a train pulls in. Because of the camera placement, visually it looks like it crashes into her head, suggesting how the information is hitting her and how it hurts.
Not that Jessy’s an angel or has an ideal way of dealing with either David or the little human growing inside of her, as she continues to drink and party hard. Is she unconsciously trying to get rid of the baby — Jessy considered an abortion early on but finally couldn’t do it — or is she simply reveling in the last months and weeks of freedom in the only way she knows how? What Locher, who wrote the screenplay with Ken Zumstein and Lisa Bruehlmann, makes visible is nothing less than the hopeless intersection between youth and inexperience on the one side and a young person’s desire to claim their independence (which pretty much precludes asking people for help or guidance) on the other. This no man’s land of sorts is where young adults need to make their own mistakes and learn from themselves and about themselves, often at a very high cost. Both actors excel at suggesting the different possible shades here, often without resorting to words.
Through the very specific story of these two young and marginalized individuals — if they had been Belgians, this would have been a Dardenne brothers movie — Goliath also examines traditional gender roles and, especially, the idea that men need to be able to physically protect their loved ones at all costs. What an obsession with this idea can finally lead to is shown in the suspenseful and ultimately moving final reel, with Locher finding just the right tone to wrap things up without sugarcoating the reality of who these characters really are. It’s a fitting end to a modest movie that nonetheless suggests a major Swiss talent was at its helm.
Production company: Cognito Films
Cast: Sven Schelker, Jasna Fritzi Bauer, Jose Barros, Tim Bettermann, Annina Euling, Isabelle Menke, Michael Neuenschwander, Lisa Bruehlmann, Adrian Furrer, Bettina Stucky
Director: Dominik Locher
Screenplay: Dominik Locher, Ken Zumstein, Lisa Bruehlmann
Producers: Dario Schoch, Rajko Jazbec
Director of photography: Gabriel Lobos
Production designer: Marlen Grassinger, Frederik Kunkel
Costume designer: Laura Locher
Editors: Rebecca Troesch, Aurora Voegeli
Music: Matteo Pagamici
Venue: Locarno Film Festival (Competition)
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