Shelter -- Film Review

Bulgarian Black comedy of troubled teens and concerned parents is an eastern European gem.

SAN SEBASTIAN — The kids aren´t all right in “Shelter,” an impressively confident and accomplished feature debut from writer-director Dragomir Sholev. Bringing a fresh spin to the seemingly clapped-out genre of movies dealing with tearaway teenagers and inter-generational misunderstandings, this darkly witty four-hander, mostly set in a drab suburban apartment, will obtain plenty of festival exposure after world-premiering in the San Sebastian New Directors competition (where it could easily have graced the main slate). Intelligently exploring universal issues that are as relevant now as ever before, this downbeat but never depressing slice-of-life deserves a shot at arthouse distribution in receptive territories.

It´s encouraging to see see Bulgaria start to emerge from the cinematic shadow of its overachieving east Balkan neighbor Romania — and it´s surely no coincidence that the screenplay of "Shelter" ("Podslon") was co-written with that country´s Radvan Radzulescu, who collaborated with director Cristi Puiu on the internationally acclaimed and award-laden "The Death of Mr Lazarescu" (2005). Melissa de Raaf also receives a scripting credit here.

Like "Lazarescu,” "Shelter" finds seams of black humor in potentially depressing material. Both movies unfold against a grim post-Communist Eastern European backdrop of concrete-jungle apartment-blocks and a general air of somber grubbiness. But, as handled by Sholev and his collaborators, "Shelter" is just a tweak or two away from sitcom territory.

Middle-aged water polo coach Stoychev (Cvetan Daskalov) is returning from a match in the capital Sofia when he learns that his 14-year-old son Rado (Kaloyan Siriiski) hasn´t been home for two days. Stoychev and his tearfully distressed wife (Yanina Kasheva) report the disappearance to the police, but on returning home find their lad is back unharmed — and he´s brought his new friend Courtney (Silvia Gerina) with him.

A little older than Rado, Courtney is a scary-looking goth with tattoos, piercings and black clothing. The Stoychevs fear that their hitherto well-behaved only child is being led astray. Such worries escalate when Courtney’s punk pal Tenx (Irena Hristoskova) shows up with booze and cigarettes, setting up a tense meal-time in which Stoychev’s concerns and his prejudices are aired in dramatic fashion ...

An obvious strong suit in "Shelter" are the uniformly convincing performances. As in his smart, award-winning 2008 short "The Go-Between,” Sholev has an evident knack with younger actors. There´s no weak link here, though the fact that Hristoskova is an actress playing an aggressive, very masculine male role in such a manner that, shades of Linda Hunt in "The Year of Living Dangerously,” one wouldn´t realise without being told.

The cast brings a somewhat talk-dominated script to sparky, often surprising life and the "cinematic" dimensions of this project, that could very easily be translated to stage or even radio, are further aided by the prowling fluent 35mm steadicam work of cinematographer Krum Rodriguez. Kevork Aslanyan´s editing is also a consistent plus, ranging from audaciously extended takes to abruptly rhythmical cutting and thus modulating tension and humor as required.

Venue: San Sebastian International Film Festival
Production companies: Klas Film; Bulgarian National TV; Nu Boyana Film
Cast: Cvetan Daskalov, Yanina Kasheva, Kaloyan Siriiski, Irena Hristoskova, Silvia Gerina
Director: Dragomir Sholev
Screenwriters: Razvan Radulescu, Melissa de Raaf, Dragomir Sholev
Producer: Rossitsa Valkanova
Director of photography: Krum Rodriguez
Music: Vassil Gurov
Editor: Kevork Aslanyan
Sales: Klas Film
No rating, 88 minutes

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