The Weight of Elephants: Berlin Review

The Weight of Elephants - H 2013

The Weight of Elephants - H 2013

An earnest but uneven exploration of childhood fragility that too often favors textural elements over dramatic structure.

New Zealander writer-director Daniel Joseph Borgman's debut feature is an intimate account of an 11-year-old boy's struggle with isolation and abandonment.

BERLIN -- The loneliness and cruelty of childhood and the bruises of abandonment are at the heart of Daniel Joseph Borgman’s feature debut, The Weight of Elephants. Reflecting the writer-director’s background, the contemplative drama combines a deeply felt connection to the sleepy suburban isolation of his native New Zealand with a psychological approach typical of much Danish cinema, where he has put down professional roots. This not-quite-seamless duality is overlaid with a self-consciously poetic sensibility to mixed, if occasionally poignant, results.

Inspired by Australian writer Sonya Hartnett’s novel Of a Boy, the story centers on introspective 11-year-old Adrian (Demos Murphy), placed by his unfit mother in the care of his Gran (Catherine Wilkin), a no-nonsense warmth-free zone. Bullied as an outsider at school, Adrian feels closest to his Uncle Rory (Matthew Sunderland), a manic-depressive whose volatile mood swings frequently plunge him into despair.

Fascinated by news reports of three abducted children, Adrian also is strangely drawn to the ostracized foster kids at school. But he needs little help in being socially exiled on the playground. When a family moves into a shabby house on his street, with three young children left unsupervised to run wild, he begins to fantasize that they might be the missing kids.

As his sole friendship with classmate Clinton (Finn Holden) crumbles, Adrian cautiously gets to know his new neighbors. Six-year-old Joely (Hannah Jones) is open and trusting, but her tough-acting older sister Nicole (Angelina Cottrell) is wary. However, as Adrian reveals his own unhappiness and gains insights into their family situation, he finds common ground with the preteen girl.

Borgman hasn’t managed to satisfyingly tame the novelistic origins of the story, and the film is more successful on a scene-by-scene basis than as a whole. Weight of Elephants is at its best when observing the ways in which kids observe one another. The mix of circumspection, curiosity, envy, animosity and defensiveness common to new childhood encounters is depicted with sensitivity, contrasting with the tribal rules of engagement for boys deciding who’s in and who’s out of the popular group.

But while his sound and visual elements often are quite beautiful, Borgman is over-reliant on lyrical slow-motion sequences to convey both the dreamy and troubled sides of Adrian’s inner life and the world as he sees it. This contributes to the film’s nagging preciousness, which is worsened by the tendency to stuff the thoughts of an adult screenwriter into the mouths of children. “We’re making a memorial,” says Nicole when the search for the missing kids is called off. “If we don’t care, who will?” False notes like this one are lethal.

That memorial is a Calder-esque mobile of broken stemware catching the sunlight on a backyard tree. It’s so patently the work of an art director and not a bunch of kids that it takes you out of the story. Still, there’s a core sincerity to the film that’s amplified in Murphy’s emotionally raw performance. His eyes reveal what the title suggests -- that childhood can be freighted with impossible burdens.

Venue: Berlin International Film Festival (Forum/Generation)
Production companies: Zentropa Entertainments5, Severe Features, Film I Vast, Zentropa Sweden
Cast: Demos Murphy, Matthew Sunderland, Catherine Wilkin, Angelina Cottrell, Hannah Jones, Finn Holden, Courtney Luskie
Daniel Joseph Borgman, inspired by the novel “Of a Boy,” by Sonya Hartnett
Producers: Katja Adomeit, Leanne Saunders
Executive producer: Louise Vesth, Peter Aalbaek Jensen
Director of photography: Sophia Olsson
Production & costume designer: Kirsty Cameron
Music: Kristian Selin Eidnes Andersen
Editor: Molly Malene Stensgaard
Sales: NZ Film
No rating, 87 minutes