‘Next To Me’ (‘Pored mene’): Sarajevo Review

Courtesy of Hypnopolis
A brain, a beauty, a princess, a rebel, a Serb nationalist and a bunch of sexually confused closet cases.

This Balkan rites-of-passage drama probes the hopes and fears of a class full of disaffected teenagers locked inside their school overnight.

Finally it’s here: that Serbian remake of The Breakfast Club we have all been waiting three decades to see. A youth-centric ensemble drama about a class of rowdy high schoolers confined to an after-hours detention, Next To Me was conceived by its writer-director Stevan Filipović while teaching at the Belgrade Academy of Arts, working with his own student actors to help shape the story. Rapturously received at the Sarajevo Film Festival last week, where it won the Young Audience Award, the film opens domestically later this month.

Filipović’s last film was Skinning, a political drama about Neo-Nazi skinheads in Serbia. The biggest domestic box office hit of 2010, it earned him death threats as well as numerous festival awards. Next To Me picks up on some of the same themes of juvenile delinquency and right-wing nationalism, but it is also a warmer and more nuanced snapshot of contemporary youth. While Serbian cinema rarely makes waves outside the Balkans, this engaging, funny, humane teen drama has stronger credentials than most, especially for any shameless distributors willing to exploit its superficial similarities to the much-loved 1985 John Hughes classic.

Next to Me takes place in a crumbling Belgrade high school. Hristina Popović (Circles, The Parade) plays Olja, an idealistic young history teacher trying to impart liberal values to her class of noisy, belligerent, alienated, selfie-taking teenagers. Married to visual artist Uglješa (Dragan Mićanović), whose latest exhibition has angered conservatives by mocking Serbia’s religious right, Olja is routinely dismissed as a leftie do-gooder by students and fellow teachers alike. One night, she is attacked in the street by masked youths who splash her with red paint, branding her a “Communist”.

The next day in class, Olja is shocked to discover her students sharing phonecam footage of the attack. When her assailants refuse to identify themselves, she angrily confiscates everybody’s phone and leaves, locking her entire class inside the school. As evening turns to night, the dramatic focus shifts to the imprisoned teens as they rampage through the empty building, fighting and flirting, boozing and smoking weed, jostling for sexual and social status. Their conversations range across universal teen touchstones, including The Vampire Diaries and The Big Bang Theory, while the subtitles contain sassy slang translations like “crazy biatchez”. A nicely specific touch.

Tensions soon erupt between the nerds and the jocks, the studious squares and the drug-dealing thugs. A handful of subplots begin to form, but the flamboyantly gay Lazar (Slaven Došlo) emerges as most compelling and fully realized character, a street-tough pretty-boy who relishes sexually teasing the ultra-macho athlete Strahinja (Nikola Glisic) and his would-be slutty girlfriend Jelena (Milica Majkic), both of whom are plainly protesting too much. Such are the levels of homophobia in Serbia that Filipović struggled for months to cast Lazar, a dozen aspiring actors refusing the role.

Next To Me rambles a little in its latter stages and ends on an anticlimactic, open-ended note, leaving many loose ends. The long night also throws up some predictable confessions and revelations, although thankfully Filipović stops short of delivering any sermons. Some of his characters feel like schematic stereotypes, and a few are clearly too old to play high schoolers, notably the gothic diva Isidora (Gorica Regodic). The narrow range of interior locations and shaky-camera shooting style also start to feel cramped at times.

Even so, this is an engaging portrait of contemporary Euro-teens which manages to balance local concerns with universal themes. Compassionate without being condescending, Filipović rightly takes these adolescent anti-heroes seriously, just not as seriously as they take themselves. John Hughes, we suspect, would approve.

Production company: Hypnopolis

Cast: Hristina Popović, Dragan Mićanović, Slaven Došlo, Gorica Regodić, Nikola Glišić, Milica Majkić, Matea Milosavljević, Katarina Pešić, Rastko Vujisić, Marko Panajotović, Milivoje Miša Stanimirović, Darko Ivić

Director, editor: Stevan Filipović

Screenwriters: Stevan Filipović, Milena Bogavac

Cienmatographers: Maja Radosevic

Producer: Branislav Jević

Production Designer: Ivana Karisik

Sales company: Taramount Film, Belgrade

No rating, 95 minutes