'The Wednesday Child' ('A szerdai gyerek'): Karlovy Vary Review

An elegant socio-realist drama.

This first film from Hungarian director Lili Horvath won the top prize in Karlovy Vary's East of the West competition.

Hungarian socio-realist drama The Wednesday Child (A szerdai gyerek) recounts how a hotheaded and (unsurprisingly) somewhat immature 19-year-old mother tries to improve her life and that of her mute, 4-year-old son by starting a laundry. In order to achieve this, she needs a small loan from a local community center, though writer-director Lili Horvath keeps her debut focused on the characters’ emotions and thankfully doesn’t turn her film into Microcredit: The Movie. Headlined by striking newcomer Kinga Vecsei, who frequently manages to telegraph her character’s often conflicting feelings with just a glance, this is an accessible feature that nevertheless doesn’t whitewash the harsh realities of life on the margins of Hungarian society. Child won the top prize in Karlovy Vary’s East of the West competition and should have no problems attracting attention at home and at festivals, though wider theatrical exposure will need strong critical support.

The film is bookended by a conversation between a visibly shocked Maja (Vecsei) and a police officer, who tries to calm her down by explaining she’s only a witness and thus shouldn’t worry but who lifts an eyebrow or two when Maja can’t answer the simple question of what her place of birth is. The bulk of the film is one long flashback that explains how Maja ended up in the police car and what it is she witnessed. Though this relatively straightforward narrative trick, Horvath, who also wrote the screenplay, helps infuse the proceedings with a hint of suspense while already suggesting one of the film’s main themes: the lack of a sense of belonging while being entrenched in a vicious cycle of problems. 

Though only 19, Maja has her own place in a rundown housing project, where her boyfriend Krisz (Zsolt Antal), a small-time hoodlum, often crashes. Their 4-year-old child, a blond, jug-eared cutie called Krisztian (Ede Kovacs), still lives in the rural orphanage, a train ride away from the city, where Maja and Krisz met and grew up. Though Dad makes a display of showing no interest in the “mute kid,” Maja dreams of securing custody of little Krisz so they can live together. But for that to happen, she needs a steady income.

If the basic setup is simple enough, there are enough complications to keep audiences invested in Maja’s fate. First, Krisz has no intention of changing the illegal ways in which he makes money, while Maja faces an uphill battle when she enters a contest to perhaps qualify for a microcredit loan (of about $1,750) at the community center where she works part-time, as a cleaner. For someone for whom it takes a superhuman effort to simply arrive on time — frequently, she doesn’t — dealing with all the required bureaucracy involved in her application is a serious challenge. And old habits die hard, as seen in a scene in which Maja steals the wallet of the kind social worker and former alcoholic Janos (Szabolcs Thuroczy), who’s trying to help her with her submission.

In a few quickly sketched scenes early on, when Maja visits her son at the orphanage, Horvath and Vecsei make sure that it’s clear that the protagonist has her heart in the right place from the get-go. But to ensure she’s not a saintly girl fighting the bad people and circumstances around her, she’s short-tempered and impulsive too, no-doubt at least partially because she needs to stand her ground with the hardened lowlifes around her. This, in turn, means that occasionally she’s also fighting herself and her own inclinations, making for a more believably complex character and also for more engaging drama. And the film is immeasurably aided by the fact Vecsei can suggest contradictory emotions without even resorting to words, though Horvath doesn't overuse this gift and Child remains something of a classical, dialogue-driven drama.

The film is not devoid of cliches, such as the fact Krisztian is a mute. This might suggest why his teenage dad rejects him but it’s also something of an annoying ticking time bomb, with the audience waiting to see when he’ll finally pronounce his first words. But more often, Horvath uses initially cliched setups in unexpected ways. The relationship between Janos, who’s divorced, lonely and middle-aged, and the love-hungry and microloan-obsessed Maja, for example, takes a couple of unexpected turns, which provides the film with some surprises while also cleverly infusing the finale with greater emotional heft.

Horvath was the casting director on Kornel Mundruczo’s canine Cannes hit White God, in which she also played a role alongside Thuroczy, who’s extremely warm and patient here, yet not an angelic caricature either. The newbie here demonstrates not only a solid handle on her actors, many of them non-professionals, but also a real sense of how to use the camera to get the most out of each scene. Young and very talented cinematographer Robert Maly’s use of softly sculptural light and careful framing and movements imbue the film with an unexpected sense of elegance and composure. Rather than clashing with the scrappy protagonists, it seems to visually suggest what the state, on a local level at least, is trying to achieve for the leads: lives that are more stable and more beautiful. 

Production companies: Popfilm, Detailfilm, Filmpartners
Cast: Kinga Vecsei, Zsolt Antal, Szabolcs Thuroczy, Ede Kovacs
Writer-Director: Lili Horvath
Producer: Karoly Feher
Co-producer: Henning Kamm
Director of photography: Robert Maly
Production designers: Lorinc Boros, Sandra Sztevanovity
Costume designers: Janos Breckl, Monika Kis
Editor: Daniel Szabo
Music: Gabor Presser
Casting: Zsofia Szilagyi
Sales: HNFF World Sales

No rating, 93 minutes