'Alice T.': Film Review | Locarno 2018

Courtesy of the Locarno Film Festival
Who's Brat?

Romanian writer-director Radu Muntean ('One Floor Below,' 'Tuesday, After Christmas') returns to Locarno for his latest feature.

An adopted teenager with flaming red hair and a fiery attitude to match gets pregnant in Alice T., the latest film from Romanian filmmaker Radu Muntean. As in his Cannes-selected features Boogie, One Floor Below and Tuesday, After Christmas, this is a story set in a contemporary Romania that’s hardly distinguishable from most other Western countries. That sense of indistinctness and impersonality, unfortunately, here also extends to the story itself, which, despite being credited to three screenwriters including the director, is somewhat generic and lacking clarity in especially the character motivation department. After a bow in competition at Locarno, where the filmmaker’s period drama The Paper Will Be Blue debuted back in 2006, this should travel to other festivals mainly on the strength of Muntean’s name and his association with the Romanian New Wave.     

Alice (Andra Guti) is a problem child. She has avoided going to school for most of the past two weeks when the film opens. When her mother, Bogdana (Mihaela Sirbu), finally comes to pick her up from school on a day she did decide to go but then decides she's not feeling well, she’s given a stack of papers filled with complaints from the girl’s teachers. While Bogdana puts on a united front with her daughter in front of the crabby principal (Alina Berzunteanu), clearly siding with her offspring, things are a different story at home. Matters spin out of control early on, when Mom discovers Alice might be expecting and forces her to do a pregnancy test in front of her. But her daughter refuses to cooperate, flushing the test down the toilet when she pretends to be peeing on the strip.

After an exhausting whining and screaming match — could they be related to the obnoxiously loud clan from Radu Jude’s Everybody in Our Family? — Alice finally admits, sans test, that she is indeed pregnant. She also makes clear that she refuses to have an abortion, even though, as her mother points out, she still needs to be told when to shower, so how is she going to look after someone else? The fact that the father is out of the picture doesn't really help, either.

When there is an unexpected moment of tenderness between Alice, Bogdana and Bogdana’s mother, it comes as a — very welcome — surprise. But at the same time, it is almost impossible to read since there is no sense of any kind of backstory for Alice or the family she grew up in. Is this simply how things were before Alice got pregnant or became a teen? Or is this a highly unusual moment of calm, mirth and love in the life of a troubled child who has always been difficult? The screenplay, written by Muntean with his regular co-writers Alexandru Baciu and Razvan Radulescu, is frustratingly vague as Alice simply seems to meander through her life. For things big and small, it seems like she says one thing and then does another without any real explanation. It is suggested, for example, that she doesn’t really want to go to the seaside but then, several scenes later, she is there anyway, without any suggestion of whether she changed her mind, someone forced her to go or she is there for another reason altogether. The closing scene similarly relies on a reversal of one of Alice's previous positions but it is hard to care since it is never clear how or why the change of mind came about.

For a movie named after its title character, it is reasonable to expect some insight into what makes the protagonist tick. But Alice’s impossible behavior doesn’t really have an explanation other than the general idea that she’s a temperamental teenager. Even the fact that she was adopted and now faces motherhood herself — a potential gold mine in terms of conflicted feelings about filial relationships; nature vs. nurture and the abortion option versus adoption or raising the child — is never explored in any depth. What’s needed is the suggestion of some kind of causal relationship between the girl’s many issues and her behavior, but the screenplay steadfastly refuses to offer even a hint of this. The result is that it more often feels like Alice is just acting out, screaming and lying like there’s no tomorrow because she’s an impossible brat. 

Character studies of teenagers are, by definition, hard to do, because the whole point of adolescence is that it is a transitional period and that everything is in flux. The reason or reasons behind certain behavior can be hard to explain even for the teenagers themselves. They become aware of either the desire to, or the expectation that they need to, emancipate themselves, a scary process whose exact timing or modus operandi no one has probably ever agreed on. The best character studies of youngsters encapsulate this ambivalence while suggesting how a more mature person slowly comes into view as various possibilities are tested and then discarded or readjusted until they seem to finally fit. But that never really happens here and things are further marred by newcomer Andra Guti’s limited range. She’s convincing as a teenager with an opinion about everything — even though that opinion might change in about three seconds — but her scenes of histrionic crying take the viewer right out of the film, and she never manages to suggest any kind of underlying complexity that would make an audience warm to her despite her bad behavior. It is finally her mother, finely etched by One Floor Below co-star Sirbu, who emerges as the most interesting and fully realized character, though she isn't on screen all the time.  

Though Alice T. still contains some of the long, static shots that are a hallmark of the Romanian New Wave, with each film it seems like Muntean is distancing himself further from the other directors working under the same umbrella. His most recent films have all been radically contemporary and almost entirely divorced from the purely Romanian context. This isn’t a bad thing, necessarily, and directors such as Radu Jude, who just won the Crystal Globe in Karlovy Vary for "I Do Not Care If We Go Down In History as Barbarians," have fared well as they have veered off into different directions. This, however, feels like a dead end for Muntean, as Alice’s story has bypassed any sense of larger universality and ended up being simply generic.

Production companies: Multi Media Est, Les Films de l’apres-midi, Film i Vast, Chimney
Cast: Andra Guti, Mihaela Sirbu, Cristine Hambasanu, Ela Ionescu, Bogdan Dumitrache
Director: Radu Muntean 
Screenplay: Alexandru Baciu, Razvan Radulescu, Radu Muntean 
Producers: Dragos Vilcu, Oana Iancu
Executive producer: Dragos Vilcu 
Director of photography: Tudor Lucaciu
Production designer: Anca Lazar
Costume designer: Eliza Frone
Editor: Andu Radu
Music: Electric Brother
Venue: Locarno Film Festival (Competition)
Sales: Films Boutique

In Romanian
105 minutes