'Center of My World' ('Die Mitte der Welt'): Munich Review

Munich Filmfest
A beguiling teen romance.

Austrian-born director Jakob M. Erwa's adaptation of Andreas Steinhoefel’s eponymous German YA novel stars up-and-comers Louis Hofmann and Jannik Shuemann as teenage lovers.

A messy but also occasionally mesmerizing adaptation of Andreas Steinhoefel’s eponymous German YA novel, Center of My World (Die Mitte der Welt) is refreshingly candid and admirably complex even as it succumbs to a box full of Sundance-y mannerisms and by its closing reel has so many narrative balls in the air, it’s impossible to wrap things up gracefully without dropping a few. Exploring a summer in the life of the male half of two teenage twins who is sucked into his first and deliciously carefree same-sex relationship just as his sister grows more enigmatic and distant, the film certainly has an unusual premise and thankfully the central performance is riveting enough to ensure audiences don’t lose interest.

Austrian-born helmer Jakob M. Erwa’s Munich Film Festival premiere is scheduled for release in Germany in November, where it should be bolstered by the gay and teenybopper appeal of the two poster-ready male leads, Louis Hofmann and Jannik Shuemann, as well as at least a couple of generations’ familiarity with the popular novel, which was first published in 1998 (incidentally, when Hofmann was only one).

Phil (Hofmann) and Diane (Ada Philine Stappenbeck) live with their single mom and U.S. transplant, Glass (Swiss actress Sabine Timoteo), in an almost fairytale-like mansion on the wooded edge of an unnamed town. The house is huge and their lives seem pretty undisturbed, even if the blond and fizzy Phil has some trouble reconnecting with the more tenebrous and aloof Diane after his return from summer camp in France. The biggest difference between the twins is that Phil feels the absence of their unknown father and longs to know who he is or was — something Glass refuses to tell them — while Diane seems to believe you can’t miss someone you can’t remember or perhaps haven’t even ever met.

When school starts again, Phil’s infatuation with a cutie who has moved back to the neighborhood after several years, Nicholas (Schuemann), temporarily takes his mind off both his sister and his father. Together with his best girlfriend, the pink-haired Kat (Svenja Jung), he checks out the athlete before he realizes he’s already seen the boy once, when they were much smaller. This triggers one of the film’s numerous, slow-motion prone flashbacks, just one of Erwa’s many stylistic tricks that also includes montage sequences of still photos and Phil’s occasional explanations via voiceover. It’s clear they are meant to keep as much of the novel’s original spirit intact — there, the story is from Phil’s point-of-view, with many flashbacks to the twins’ youth — but the writer-director hasn’t quite figured out how to create a coherent and unifying film out of all these disparate elements.

Like in his previous feature, Homesick, Erwa relies too heavily on borrowing stylistic tricks from other films. A shot involving flying clothes reveals his affinity with Xavier Dolan’s Lawrence Anyways; a scene in which Phil makes love is intercut with him biking home in postcoital bliss in an effective editing trick borrowed from Don’t Look Now; and a key piece of information is revealed in an unheard whisper in a character’s ear à la Lost in Translation.

In terms of narrative as well, there is often too much going for the most important elements to naturally take center stage. Kat and Diane, for example, feel like neither protagonists nor supporting characters, finding themselves floating somewhere in between. Ditto the twins’ mother, who keeps trying to cook something edible for a potential new boyfriend (Sasha Alexander Gersak) in yet another subplot.

Thankfully, the blossoming relationship between Phil and Nick becomes the film’s center for a while as the teens’ heavy flirting turns into a physical relationship. This is one of the film’s biggest strengths, with Erwa refusing to go down the well-trodden path of teenagers struggling with their sexuality or sex and instead simply basking in their presence and physical complicity (it’s practically the only time in the film when Erwa seems to understand that less is indeed more). The boys’ rapport is played by Hofmann and Schuemann in a loving and tender way that’s as attractive to behold as it must be life-affirming for youngsters worried about their sexual proclivities or chances of ever finding happiness.

Their idyll, of course, can’t last, and Center of My World isn’t exactly a romance. But as soon as the film moves away again from the affectionate love story at it score, the many other plotlines threaten to trip up the narrative. The big revelation of the source of Diane’s unhappiness never lands the desired punch, since she’s never been a fully developed character — and she becomes ever more of a riddle when (spoiler) it turns out she might be dabbling in the supernatural. Add to that Glass’ own boy troubles, the enigma of the twins’ father, an unexpected and messily resolved subplot involving Kat and Nicholas and several other loose ends that are all fighting for attention as the film draws to a close.

If Hofmann wasn’t so charismatic and his character so damn likeable, with his winning mix of goodheartedness, curiosity and naiveté, most audiences would have given up on this World long before it ends. It’s his presence that finally pulls viewers through what feels like a spaghetti bowl of plotting and cinematic tricks surrounding a much purer teenage romance.

Venue: Munich Film Festival
Production companies: Neue Schoenhauser Filmproduktion, Prisma Film- und Fernsehproduktion, Universum Film, Mojo Pictures
Cast: Louis Hofmann, Jannik Shuemann, Sabine Timoteo, Ada Philine Stappenbeck, Svenja Jung, Sasha Alexander Gersak
Director: Jakob M. Erwa
Screenwriter: Jakob M. Erwa, based on the novel by Andreas Steinhoefel
Producer: Boris Schoenfelder
Co-producers: Viktoria Salcher, Mathias Forberg, Bernhard zu Castell, Jakob M. Erwa
Director of photography: Ngo The Chau
Production designer: Veronika Merlin

Costume designer: Peri de Braganca
Editor: Carlotta Kittel
Music: Paul Gallister
Sales: M-Appeal

Not rated, 115 minutes