'Nena': Film Review

Nena High - H 2014
Courtesy of Cineart

Nena High - H 2014

A modestly mounted but admirably complex female coming-of-ager

Dutch actress Abbey Hoes impresses as the daughter of German veteran actor Uwe Ochsenknecht in this coming-of-age feature

A Dutch-German teenager has to simultaneously deal with the discovery of boys and sex and the death wish of her paralyzed father in Nena, a somewhat familiar but otherwise pitch-perfect coming-of-age film from Dutch first-time director Saskia Diesing. The semi-autobiographical material feels very authentic and young actress Abbey Hoes is a revelation in the title role. Released in the Netherlands mid-September, this modest but precise feature unexpectedly won both best actress and best director at the recent Golden Calves ceremony, the "Dutch Oscars." It should find a welcome bed at festivals, especially those focused on debuting or women filmmakers, and a theatrical run in German-language territories and Scandinavia isn’t out of the question.

Coming of age is difficult enough without having a divorced, chronically ill and suicidal father so it’s not that surprising that the titular protagonist (Hoes) has more than her fair share of growing pains. It’s 1989 in the north of the Netherlands, close to the border with Germany, where Nena’s father, Martin (German veteran actor Uwe Ochsenknecht), is from. The adolescent’s 16 and busy falling in love with the cute, blue-haired pitcher of the local baseball team (Gijs Blom, from Boys), while at home she has to divide her time between her newly divorced father, who’s become paralyzed from the neck down because of multiple sclerosis, and her mother (Monic Hendrickx, the Dutch Meryl Streep in talent if not in type), who now tries to get used to a life alone.

Nena’s scenes with Martin, a former literature teacher, form the touching heart of the film, as both try to free themselves from constraints imposed on them from the outside (whether by an unwanted illness or parents and society). Martin casually quotes the Teutonic literary greats in his German-language conversations with his daughter, not to show off -- his daughter is not the type who’s easily impressed -- but because he knows that beyond the pretty words lies the wisdom of experience that one can find in all great literature.

Though this particular choice could have resulted in father-daughter conversations that are either extremely intellectual, overly referential and distant or simplistic and straightforwardly maudlin, Diesing finds exactly the right middle ground for the material. Similarly, the choice games Nena plays with everyone -- “Kim Basinger or Samantha Fox?” or “Death by pistol or drowning?” -- show a true teenager at work, resorting to childish ways of trying to understand adult things happening in the world around her.

Like most parents, Nena’s folks try to keep the adolescent from harm -- “You know where the condoms are, right?” her liberal Dutch mother asks when she hears about the boyfriend -- but the protagonist is now at an age where she maybe doesn’t want to know everything but also feels excluded or treated like a child when she finds out that something has been kept from her. The best example of this is the discovery, after a suicide attempt of her father, that this wasn’t the first time he’s tried to take his life (he failed both times). Nena’s initial outrage, followed by a sort of clinical indifference that’s meant to mask her indignation, are beautifully written and announce not only Hoes as an actress of impressive skill but also Diesing as a writer-director of surprising economy and empathy (the screenplay was co-written by novelist Esther Gerritsen).   

After it’s become clear Martin doesn’t want to live anymore, the rapport between father and daughter changes irreversibly. The way in which both father and daughter find peace and a workable entente within this new world order is delicately handled and surprisingly insightful, suggesting how life is about finding the right balance between being yourself and being free and taking responsibility for yourself and those around you.

Hoes is simply mesmerizing in the title role and she's surrounded by a very talented cast of co-stars, out of which Ochsenknecht is clearly the standout. His Martin is a man whose eyes don't look at the world anymore but are simply turned inward, and what he sees there doesn't allow him to go on. ("Sometimes I think I'm the only reason he's still here," says Nena.)

Though the film has all the trappings of a humble indie, it manages to make what little it has count and the period recreation by costume designer Manon Blom and production designer Jorien Sont are unfussy yet convincing. Especially strong is the film’s editing by German cutter Barbara Toennieshen, which manages to convey complex contrasts and ideas, such as when it juxtaposes Nena’s first sexual experience with the amount of effort it takes two adults to help shower the grown Martin, opposing the beginning and end of adult life and the gap between young teenagers full of lust for life and those who feel their time on earth has run its course.

Production companies: Key Film, Coin Film, VPRO

Cast: Abbey Hoes,?Uwe Ochsenknecht, Gijs Blom,?Monic Hendrickx, Fabian Jansen, Andre Jung, Rachelle Verdel, Robin Kraakman

Director: Saskia Diesing

Screenplay: Saskia Diesing, Esther Gerritsen

Producers: Hanneke Niens, Hans de Wolf

Co-producers: Joost de Wolf, Herbert Schwering, Christine Kiauk

Director of photography: Aage Hollander

Production designer: Jorien Sont

Costume designer: Manon Blom

Editor: Barbara Toennieshen

Music: Paul Eisenach

Casting: Rebecca Van Unnen, Barry Emond, Susanne Ritter


No rating, 95 minutes