Berlinale 2015: Day 6

By Sascha Krieger

Petting Zoo (Panorama / Germany, Greece, United States / Director: Micah Magee)

Layla is a high school senior living in Texas and she is pregnant. Her boyfriend is a weed-smoking loser she breaks up with early on, she meets Prince Charming but doesn’t tell him about her pregnancy, her father is a dominant tyrant, her mother won’t say a word, her grandmother is her best friend but she passes away after which Layla continues to live in her, well, trailer. If there were a checklist of clichés that must be included in a teen pregnancy film, Petting Zoo would tick all the boxes. And here comes the strange thing: The result is a tender, honest, heartfelt film that glosses over nothing but won’t allow itself to be dragged down in either bleak pessimism or tear-jerking melodrama. Centered around a mesmerizingly understated performance by Devon Keller as a stubbornly strong-willed, quietly assertive young woman, the film indulges in cool, slightly distant images and an understated direction that never dramatizes but instead, shows a girl on the edge of adulthood refusing to let others decide about her life. There is no self-pity in her, no lashing out against the world, just a refusal to back down. Other characters weave in and out depending on the role they play in Layla’s life (her parents, for example, are only seen in  one brief sequence). The narration is episodic, refusing to explain everything and not building bridges between every scene. This creates a subtle, almost documentary rhythm that breathes life into this story as does the understated, laconically suggestive ending. Petting Zoo de-dramatizes teen pregnancy and puts it back right where it belongs: in the middle of everyday life. So that even the end is just another beginning.

Petting Zoo (© Berlinale)

Petting Zoo (© Berlinale)

Dari Marusan (Forum / Japan / Director: Izumi Takahashi)

A deaf pet detective, a man suffering from guilt and anger, the girl’s deeply insecure fiancé. Everyone in Dari Marusan si full of pain and skeletons in the closet, whether it’s from fear and cowardice or the pressures of a society involuntarily comically presented as focussing only on success and the survival of the fittest. Pain-infested faces are all over the film, shot from up close, often revealing only parts of them, or half concealed as if shot from a hiding place. Cold pale colors, strictly composed still frames are only momentarily filled with color or replaced by more expressionistic images revealing inner turmoil. Flashbacks are in black and white. Everything is obvious and symbolic, the direction heavy-handed, the photography constantly trying to prove its artfulness, the story so simplistic it hurts. Dari Marusan tries too hard and risks too little, giving no life and little meaning to the two-dimensional characters it depicts. It’s a film about guilt, longing, redemption and the futility of trying to conform, maybe even the possibility of love, that reveals nothing about any of them.

La maldad (Forum / Mexico / Director:  Joshua Gil)

A fire, distant at first, on the edge of a corn field. Slowly it comes closer burns brighter, devours the field. When it begins to fad, another one starts in the distance. Is it the fire of never-ending violence and distraction, the fire of love that keeps renewing or the flame of life itself? It might be either or all of them, the decision being left to the viewer. La maldad revolves around two old men in the countryside: one preparing to die, the other planning to create a film about his life, based on twelve songs he wrote, some of which he is singing with an unsteady voice. In the end, the former will disappear in the fog while the latter is swallowed by a protesting crowd in Mexico City. Personal longing and political unrest become one, the individual cannot escape the wider world. The film resembles a collection of paintings, immobile frames depicting portraits or still lives. Interspersed are short sketches of activity shot by handheld cameras and sometimes disintegrating into extreme close-ups. The film invites the viewer to look, to listen to combine the images into their own story. Which could be about love, death, life, freedom. La maldad is a highly suggestive essay that can be read in many different ways. All that’s required are a pair of open eyes and an active brain.

Prins (Generation 14plus / Netherlands / Director: Sam de Jong)

Ayoub is a teenagerof Moroccan descent  living in a not so high class area of an unnamed Dutch city. He has an older half-sister he wants to protect, a drug addict father, a lonely mother and an unanswered crush on a girl. Prins is part social comedy and part adolescent fairy-tale with the latter ending up winning the day. It alternates between clear, somewhat pale images and fast-paced, heavily edited, more colorful dream sequences that occasionally include slow motion, charting the boy’s dreams and fear as he attempts to win street credibility. Script and direction display a light, often very humorous touch as Ayoub’s struggles are both taken seriously and laughed at, eventually even by himself. Prins is an earnest coming of age film slash gangster film parody slash teenage romance, all aspects figuring prominently while always being infused with a pleasant dose of irony. It isan intelligently told story that targets teenage audiences while providing enough inside into what drives young people today for older viewers. In the end, the would-be toughs we’re observing are only children who might be playing adults but should –  and that is the message of the film’s unashamedly optimistic, romantic and decidedly slightly unbelievable ending – embrace who they are while they can Ultimately, Prins is a witty, funny, creative, imaginative, ironic and very heartfelt fresh take on a subject as old as humanity.

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