Sneakers (Kecove): Film Review

Sofia cop-out with the Bulgarian Breakfast Club.

A romantic portrait of revolting youth, Bulgaria’s Oscar entry is an emotionally raw ensemble drama from co-directors Valeri Yordanov and Ivan Vladimirov.

A motley assortment of slackers, stoners and troubled young loners flee the city for the beach in Bulgaria’s official entry for the best foreign language Oscar competition. Already a domestic hit, Sneakers could generate overseas interest from specialist festivals and students of Eastern European cinema. But this familiar tale of youthful rebellion is too clichéd, and the dramatic treatment too uninspired, to make serious commercial waves in foreign markets.

The action begins with a series of violent vignettes in Sofia, Bulgaria’s shabby-looking capital. A hot-headed tomboy working in construction, Emi (Ina Nikolova) beats up her drunken mother’s abusive partner before going on the run with her Turkish boyfriend Ivo (Ivan Barnev). Long-haired singer Blackbird (Philip Avramov) and his smooth-talking friend Wee (Ivo Arakov) get into a bloody fight with some nightclub thugs, who turn out to be undercover cops. Meanwhile, a pair of aimless petty thieves, Fatso and Gray (Vasil Draganov and Valeri Yordanov, the film’s writer and co-director) head out of the city to escape police harassment and relationship problems.

This punchy opening primes viewers for a hard-nosed social critique of contemporary Bulgaria. Sadly dramatic momentum slackens considerably in the second act, when this loose tribe of runaways join together in a makeshift community of hippie outcasts on an unspoilt stretch of Black Sea beach. Here they swim and surf, fight and flirt, trade goofy joke and campfire songs, with an inevitable undercurrent of sexual tension. They also record their fears and fantasies on a digital video camera. But before long, this utopian alternative family comes under threat from bullying security guards and unresolved issues from their urban past.

A little rough around the edges, Sneakers does boast emotionally raw performances and some gorgeous shots of the Bulgarian countryside. The video confessionals also add a pleasing textural variety to the film’s look. In fairness, some cultural context will be lost in translation for foreign viewers, notably the allusions to anti-Turkish racism and a recurring comic riff based on local sports commentators. However, the script is a major weak point in any language, taking an evergreen theme - youthful dreams of escape – but doing nothing original with it. Many of the rambling beach scenes feel improvised, much of the dialogue stilted.

While it is never made clear how old these overgrown adolescents are supposed to be, several appear to be well over 30. None is very sympathetic, which is not essential, but nor are they unlikeable in interesting ways either. Boorish at the start of the story, boring by the end, they certainly never strike a convincing pose as the poetic misfits that the film-makers clearly intend them to be.

Indeed, as they bare their souls over a soundtrack of cheesy heavy rock, these characters might just be the most irritating bunch of whining screen narcissists since The Breakfast Club. And much like John Hughes did in his 1980s teen-angst classic, Sneakers makes the fatal error of taking its self-absorbed young protagonists as seriously as they take themselves.

Production companies: Gala Film, Sofilm
Producers: Kiril Kirilov, Galina Toneva
Cast: Ina Nikolova, Ivo Arakov, Philip Avramov, Valeri Yordanov, Ivan Barnev, Vassil Draganov
Directors: Valeri Yordanov, Ivan Vladimirov
Writer: Valeri Yordanov
Cinematographer: Rali Raltschev
Editor: Svetlana Kirilova
Music: Kiril Dobrev
Sales company: Gala Film
Rating TBC, 111 minutes