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Stories about children who have been neglected, abused or generally treated terribly are intrinsically laudable in themselves, hard to make because of the challenges of working with child actors, and hard to sell to distributors because they’re hard to market to audiences. Nevertheless, there has also been a bit of a glut of them recently at film festivals, and poor Jack, a German film about a 10-year-old boy who runs away from a state-run shelter to find his neglectful mother, thus arrives somewhat disadvantaged by compassion fatigue. This collaboration between TV-trained director Edward Berger and actor-turned-scriptwriter Nele Mueller-Stoefen, who co-wrote the script together, is made with sensitivity, skill and honesty. However, it doesn’t really say anything new, especially when compared with, say, the recent Short Term 12 or Ursula Meier’s Sister, the latter another Berlin competitor made a couple years back, which covered similar ground with more bite.
Prepubescent Jack (acting newbie Ivo Pietzcker, impressive) lives with his 5-year-old half-brother Manuel (Georg Arms) and their mother Sanna (Luise Heyer) in a Berlin tower block. Judging by their clothes and home furnishings, this single-parent family is not exactly poverty stricken, and Sanna clearly loves her children, but she’s also selfish and terminally feckless, inclined to just skip out on the kids for jaunts away with men or friends.
That means Jack has to take Manuel home on the subway alone, ensure the laundry gets done, and make them both breakfast in the morning with whatever foodstuff is lying about the apartment. And let’s not even get started on the fact that Sanna and Jack both think it’s perfectly normal for him to walk into her room while she’s having sex with a man to ask for some dinner in the middle of the night — which she serves him stark naked, a scene that perhaps will shock North Americans more than nudity-loving Germans.
One day, when Sanna is away doing whatever it is she does (the narrative sticks limpet-like to Jack’s point of view, and we only know what he knows), Manuel is scalded by bath water and social services are called in. The authorities decide, perhaps inexplicably to some viewers’ eyes, to leave Manuel in Sanna’s care but place Jack in a children’s home. Employee Becki (Mueller-Stofen herself) does her best to ease his transition, but he’s soon being bullied by another child. When a holiday arrives and Jack expects to be allowed home to see Sanna and Manuel for the first time in weeks, she doesn’t turn up to collect him. A fight with the bully puts Jack in a panic, and he runs, all the way across Berlin, to find his mom and brother, beginning an odyssey after which nothing will ever be the same.
Berger and Muller-Stofen’s script refrains from providing any kind of backstory that would explain why Sanna is such a screw-up, which creates the kind of oblique vibe that’s so fashionable these days in arthouse cinema. But it also risks making the film feel a bit judgmental of anyone who doesn’t conform to middle-class Germanic values, especially in a scene where Jack and Manuel go looking for Sanna at a rave in a squat, depicted as the most squalid environment a child could ever be exposed to. The characters on the whole lack dimensionality, and although photogenic young Pietzcker has presence, he’s just a nice, hard-done-by urchin. Compare and contrast with, for instance, the title character in the Dardenne Brothers’ Rosetta, another kid who’s also been shafted by life and has a ruthless streak that, paradoxically, makes her more sympathetic and interesting to watch.
The influence of the Dardennes is felt a little too keenly here throughout, what with the subject itself and all the handheld shots following people perpetually in a rush, the grainy cinematography and the insertion of contemplative moments where the camera just stares at people’s faces in repose while they sit there looking vaguely sad. Ten minutes or more could easily have been shaved off the 102-minute running time in the editing suite, but then again, a faster pace might have robbed the audience of the sense of shared suffering that’s so integral to stories like this.
Venue: Berlin Film Festival (Competition)
Production: A Port-Au-Prince Production in coproduction with Cine Plus, Mixtvision, Neue Bioskop, Zero West
Cast: Ivo Pietzcker, Georg Arms, Luise Heyer, Nele Mueller-Stofen, Odine Johne, Vincent Redetzki, Jacob Matschenz
Director: Edward Berger
Screenwriter: Berger, Nele Mueller-Stofen
Producers: Jan Krüger, René Roemert,Joerg Himstedt, Georg Steinert
Director of photography: Jens Harant
Production designer: Christiane Rothe
Costume designer: Esther Walz
Editors: Janina Herhoffer
Music: Christoph M. Kaiser, Julian Maas
Sales: Beta Cinema
No rating, 102 minutes
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