‘Axolotl Overkill’: Film Review | Sundance 2017

'Axolotl Overkill' Still - H Promo 2017
Courtesy K2 Publicity
Teenage kicks.

German writer Helene Hegemann brings her best-selling and shocking novel to the screen in this Sundance World Dramatic contender.

Overkill may indeed be the appropriate term to describe German author turned director Helene Hegemann’s feature debut, adapted from a best-selling novel she penned at the age of 16. Chronicling the wild nights and aimless days of a Berliner girl who just wants to have fun, and possibly find some real affection in the process, Axolotl Overkill vaguely follows in the footsteps of films by Larry Clark or Gus Van Sant, though its many scenes of decadence are portrayed with all the polish and deliberateness of an Urban Outfitters ad.

Premiering in Sundance’s World Dramatic competition and slated for summer release in Germany, the film should score well with home audiences already familiar with Hegemann’s book — a sensation when it was published in 2010, although the party was soon over when the writer was publicly accused of plagiarization. Overseas prospects could extend to territories where Axolotl has amassed a few loyal readers.

In the type of movie where each scene is meant to out-top the one before it, and where characters tend to do or say things without any rhyme or reason beyond mere shock value, we follow the downward spiral of Mifti — played by 27-year-old Jasna Fritzi Bauer, who does a good job pretending she’s 10 years younger — an adolescent clearly in the midst of a rebellion phase following the death of her mother.

Mifti drinks a lot, takes a lot of drugs, has casual sex with significantly older men and women, and says things like: “I should probably get raped for real.” When she’s not lounging around the apartment she shares with an older sister (Laura Tonke), older brother (Julius Feldmeier) and, in one random-cute scene, a penguin, she’s falling head-over-heels for Alice (French actress Arly Jover), a femme fatale crime boss who wears heavy eye makeup and instructs her younger lover about the ways of the world.

If Hegemann’s novel — entitled Axototl Roadkill, the former term describing a Mexican salamander that reaches adulthood without metamorphosing — managed to capture an audience through the reckless voice of its teenage narrator, such audacity is lost in a film that depicts moral depravity with too much over-stylization and too much overwritten, over-recited dialogue. (In one hotel room tryst, Alice tells Mifti: “Beds were invented to smoke in. Have you never seen a film from the 70s?”) Any Snapchat video made by an actual 16-year-old girl would feel much more authentic than this. 

On the plus side, Mifti does at times become an endearing person despite her big mouth and bad behavior, with credit due to Bauer for her rather subdued depiction of a girl searching for emotional attachment in a world where everyone seems blinded by their own pleasures or problems. Even the one true friend Mifti seems to have — a TV actress named Ophelia (Mavie Horbiger) — is incapable of reaching out and touching someone, if it’s not to straddle some guy in a trendy restaurant.

Technically the movie is well put together, if much too clean looking for this kind of crude portrait of youth. But there are at least a few memorable club scenes (in the book they were set at Berlin’s infamous Berghain) that French cinematographer Manuel Dacosse (Evolution) captures with a swirl of monochrome colors and flashing strobe lights, creating a suitable atmosphere for Mifti’s descent into hedonistic hell.

Venue: Sundance Film Festival (World Dramatic Competition)
Production company: Vandertastic
Cast: Jasna Fritzi Bauer, Arly Jover, Mavie Horbiger, Laura Tonke, Julius Feldmeier
Director, screenwriter: Helene Hegemann, based on her novel ‘Axolotl Roadkill’
Producers: Hanneke Van der Tas, Alain de la Mata
Executive producers: Martin Moszkowicz, Oliver Berben
Director of photography: Manuel Dacosse
Production designer: Sylvester Koziolek
Costume designer: Anette Guther
Editors: Bettina Bohler
Casting director: Juliette Menager
Sales: The Match Factory

In German, English
93 minutes