Free Range: Berlin Review

A rebel without applause.

This lively Estonian drama charts the highs and lows of a boozy young troublemaker with literary ambitions.

BERLIN - Half a century ago, the big screen blazed with angry young men fighting back against a complacent older generation with booze, poetry and bad-ass attitude. The Estonian writer-director Veiko Ounpuu’s freewheeling third feature feels like a self-conscious homage to that golden age of roaringly romantic 1960s rebels. Ounpuu cites New Hollywood classics like Easy Rider and Five Easy Pieces as inspiration, although his tousle-haired scruffy-cool anti-hero looks like he just stumbled off the set of French New Wave movie.

The film's subtitle, Ballad on Approving of the World, is borrowed from the radical German dramatist Bertolt Brecht. Premiering today in the Forum section of the Berlin Film Festival, Free Range maintains the high quality standards of Ounpuu's previous features, the 2007 ensemble drama Autumn Ball and the darkly surreal 2010 comedy The Temptation of Saint Tony, both of which picked up festival prizes. Indeed, with its agreeably sardonic tone and universal coming-of-age theme, his latest has potential to become his international breakthrough among discerning Europhile audiences overseas.

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The perpetually sullen, chain-smoking, drink-sodden Fred (Lauri Lagle) is hardly a sympathetic leading man. Armed with piercing blues eyes, a loose-cannon temper and a Holden Caulfield-level disdain for the square world of parents and bosses, this twentysomething narcissist spends the entire film running away from adult responsibility. He responds to the news that his girlfriend Susanna (Jaanika Arum) is pregnant by running off with an old flame. Later, when Susanna reacts with baffled indifference to his polemical poetry, Fred half-drowns her in a bathtub. Gallantry is not his strong suit. But work is Fred's real enemy. Fired from his newspaper job as a film critic for trashing Terrence Malick's Tree of Life as "faggoty", he then grudgingly turns to more manual jobs, rarely lasting longer than it takes to insult his new boss.

Hired as a forklift operator, he breaks every safety regulation with his dangerous driving and creative stacking methods. Following his inevitable dismissal, he drunkenly steals a bus for a late-night joyride. Fred's uncanny resemblance to the dissolute British rocker Pete Doherty is distracting at times, though this off-screen echo makes a kind of dramatic sense, since both radiate a similar mix of disheveled charisma and self-destructive intensity. Ounpuu clearly sympathizes with his hero's bratty war against stifling bourgeois rules, indulging him with a few too many overlong scenes in which he debates the value of literature, wanders moodily along windswept sand dunes, or blearily dances to old Smiths albums.

A tighter edit could comfortably prune many of these more random, rambling digressions. Shot on fuzzy-warm 16mm film stock, often in artfully sloppy and blurry focus, Free Range is a stylish homage to quaintly retro notions of romantic rebellion. The soundtrack underscores this aesthetic, crackling with scratchy-vinyl ballads from yesteryear, including Leonard Cohen and Joan Baez. The brief flashes of bright color and pointedly untidy edits between scenes feel also like a Jean-Luc Godard homage. Ounpuu sometimes makes the mistake of taking his self-absorbed protagonist as seriously as he takes himself, but he wins us over in the end with a complex character study that has the bittersweet texture of real life, gathering emotional force as its rolls messily along.

Production company: Homeless Bob, Talinn

Producer: Katrin Kissa

Cast: Lauri Lagle, Jaanika Arum, Laura Peterson, Peeter Volkonski, Roman Baskin

Director: Veiko Ounpuu

Screenwriters: Veiko Ounpuu, Robert Kurvitz

Cinematographer: Mart Taniel

Editor: Liis Nimik

Sales company: LevelK, Denmark

No rating, 104 minutes