'Neon Heart': Film Review | San Sebastian 2018

San Sebastian International Film Festival
Pulses with promise.

Danish writer-director Laurits Flensted-Jensen's debut premiered in the New Directors competition at the Basque Country jamboree.

There's considerable electricity if not much real illumination in Neon Heart, an uneven but overall flavorsome debut from Danish writer-director Laurits Flensted-Jensen. One of the more notable contenders in the well-endowed New Directors competition at the San Sebastian International Film Festival, this tale of three young urbanites and their haphazardly intersecting lives introduces several names who may well go on to bigger stages. 

Chief among these is co-star Niklas Herskind as thirty-ish former drug addict Niklas. In only his fourth feature, Herskind is already a performer who commands attention even when he's doing nothing but brooding silently. In the last few years he has mainly worked as a DIT and video-assist on TV shows, but his future surely lies in front of the camera rather than behind.

Struggling to piece his wayward life together with the help of rehab and his part-time job working with the mentally handicapped, the streetwise Niklas is a role model of sorts for his considerably younger teenage brother, Frederik (Noah Skovgaard Sands), though the pair see very little of each other. Indeed, after a first-reel meeting the duo never reunite over the remainder of the film, which traces their exploits around the not-really-so-very-mean streets of Copenhagen.

Flensted-Jensen and editor Frederik Strunk interweave Niklas and Frederik's stories with that of Niklas's ex Lauren (Victoria Carmen Sonne from Hlynur Palmason's Winter Brothers), not long returned from an abortive sojourn in the U.S. where she dabbled in lo-fi amateur porno. Glimpses of the latter exploits render Neon Heart strictly adults-only fare, their rough-edged video look also serving to provide welcome visual variation.

Of the trio, Lauren seems to be by some way the most mature and together. Niklas can't resist falling into his previous "bad boy" ways from time to time, stealing cash from his kindly grandmother and taking two of his charges to a brothel when they're supposed to be at a funfair. Frederik's transgressions are even more serious. Struggling to coming to terms with adulthood and masculinity he drifts towards a subculture of macho violence, and a planned robbery at a gay cruising spot cooked up with his best pal Thomas (Mikkel Haagerup Lund) yields catastrophic consequences. 

Deliberately episodic and fragmentary as a narrative, Neon Heart (named after a background decoration in the bordello visited by Niklas and company in a tricky, deftly-handled scene) convinces as a clear-eyed vision of the psychological pressures and sociological forces with which young Europeans, saturated with media and images of sexuality, often struggle to deal.  

Visual and aural flourishes are skillfully accomplished, cinematographer Balthazar Hertel (like editor Strunk) having compiled a relatively prolific stack of credits over the past decade. Flensted-Jensen is more of a greenhorn by comparison, but there's definitely talent here, as proven by the vivid closing sequence of Frederik riding pillion on Thomas' scooter through the suburban night. Shaken up by his recent traumatic experiences, the lad temporarily forgets his woes by waving a red flare which endows his drab surroundings with a sensual, transient glow of infernal danger. 

Production company: Walenciak Film
Cast: Noah Skovgaard Skands, Niklas Herskind, Victoria Carmen Sonne, Mikkel Haagerup Lund, Kevin Lakomy, Christian Andersen Busk
Director-screenwriter: Laurits Flensted-Jensen
Producer: Julie Friis Walenciak
Cinematographer: Balthazar Hertel
Editor: Frederik Strunk
Composer: Peter Peter
Casting director: Gro Therp
Venue: San Sebastian International Film Festival (New Directors)
Sales: Stray Dogs, Paris

In Danish (some English)
90 minutes