While official Academy screenings are already under way for the long roll-call of foreign-language Oscar submissions, I’ve slowly been wading my own way through the pile. Having now seen in the region of 25 contenders, around two-thirds of the list remains – I’ll never get to them all, but I’m still feeling more well-briefed than usual. Meanwhile, the more I see, the more impressed I am by the standard of this year’s competition; the threat of “The Intouchables” notwithstanding, Academy voters will really have to go out of their way to make a dud choice.
Today’s double-shot of contenders for discussion haven’t been been paired for any reason beyond the fact that I saw them back-to-back at the London Film Festival last weekend. Certainly, at first glance, Mexico’s serenely threatening high-school drama “After Lucia” and The Netherlands’ gentle slip of a family film “Kauwboy” don’t have much more than that in common. On closer inspection, however, some clear dramatic and thematic links belie the gaping tonal and formal differences between them.
Both films study the emotional turmoil endured by children bereft of maternal influence, and the familial damage wrought by communication barriers. In terms of the negotiation and resolution (or otherwise) of such crisis, however, you couldn’t ask for two more opposed case studies.
The one likelier to trouble Academy voters – in all senses of the verb – is “After Lucia,” a film I’ve held off writing about for a week because, as excitingly conceived, psychologically riling and astonishingly well-made as it is, I honestly can’t say I know quite how I feel about it.
Michel Franco’s almost cruelly assured sophomore feature won the Un Certain Regard section at Cannes (beating fellow Oscar contenders “Our Children” and “Children of Sarajevo,” not to mention “Beasts of the Southern Wild”) and it’s not hard to see why: Franco tackles the topical subject of teen bullying with a violent focal discipline and austere-brute candor that calls to mind several more seasoned provocateurs. “It’s Michael Haneke does ‘Mean Girls!’” is how a luckless producer could try pitching a US remake that will never, ever happen.
“After Lucia” has accrued a measure of positive the-less-you-know notoriety on the festival circuit – though for at least its first half, viewers aware of its reputation may wonder if there’s a code they’re failing to crack. Even as events start spiraling into adolescent unpleasantness, there’s an unfussed normalcy to Franco’s setup that recalls a particularly high-end Afterschool Special: smart, pretty teenager Alejandra (strong newcomer Tessa Ia, whose impassivity becomes more striking as the narrative unfolds) is both new at school and new in town, having recently moved to Mexico City with her chef dad Roberto (Hernan Mendoza) following the accidental death of her mom (the “Lucia” of the title).
She’s quick to make friends, though something seems untraceably malign about her new pals’ overtures from the get-go. When a boozy house party results in a hook-up with one of the more affable boys in her circle, casually documented on a sex tape that swiftly goes classroom-viral, the fallout suggests Alejandra alone is prey to a curiously calculated experiment in imposed social demotion.
As the victimization escalates to levels so vicious as to take us firmly out of teen-movie territory, the film reveals itself not as a contemporary issue-based tract, but an extreme allegory for basest human behavior – a beer-soused “Lord of the Flies” in tight denim, if you will. By the time Franco executes his galvanizing, all-or-nothing denouement – an inevitably polarizing but impressively followed-through narrative gambit that makes and breaks the film in one fell swoop – it’s not only the teenagers’ behavior that pushes bounds of acceptability, or even rationality.
At both its most earnest and most outrageous, this could easily be the stuff of flushed, didactic melodrama, so it’s to Franco’s considerable credit that his chosen mode of detached, unflinching observation doesn’t waver for a second. Indeed, the film is coolly matter-of-fact enough about the bald inhumanity playing out on screen that we’re almost lulled into ignoring the credibility canyons slicing through this touchy material – beginning, but certainly not ending, with the previously self-possessed, articulate Alejandra’s refusal to tell a soul when the abuse meted out to her reaches criminal proportions.
Nobody’s motivations – not her own, not her tormentors’, not her father’s – add up here, which is quite possibly the way Franco wants it in his untied morality tale. Down to the final frame, the final splash of its eerily diegetic soundtrack, the film is too exactingly composed to suggest Franco’s hasn’t thought through the question of common plausibility: there’s something to be said for explaining senselessness with senselessness, but this genuinely rattling film flirts with speciousness in the process.
After staggering out of “After Lucia,” I rather wished the unvarnished, unsentimental but decidedly more comforting “Kauwboy” (yes, it’s pronounced “cowboy”) had been the second part of the double feature rather than the first. Then again, its modest (which is not to say careless) technical and structural qualities wouldn’t have been best flattered by that sequencing, so perhaps it’s for the best. On its own terms, however, this 80-minute miniature is a bracing first feature for documentary maker Boudewijn Koole that stands as more of an anomaly than it should be: a low-concept character study as children’s film.
The film’s very premise seems an overt nod to Ken Loach’s landmark childhood portrait “Kes”: a lonely boy finds and nurtures a young bird, their mutual dependence and devotion filling in for absent sources of affection while prying open larger social skills. The comparisons should end there: though also rooted in realism, Koole’s film is a softer piece, less profoundly affecting but possessed of its own valid truths and unobtrusive compassion.
10 year-old Jojo (the appealing but not oppressively cute Rick Lens) lives in a grassy, anonymous wedge of suburban Holland with his brusque car-mechanic dad (Loek Peters); he maintains his adoring mother, a country singer-songwriter, is on tour in the US and regularly speaks to her on the phone, though you needn’t be much older than Jojo to realize her “tour” has sent her skywards. With his father’s refusal to talk about her exacerbating the boy’s sense of isolation, Jojo secretly adopts an abandoned baby jackdaw (“kauw” in Dutch) to practise some mothering of his own.
There are no grand revelations here, and Koole doesn’t feign to offer us any; Jojo’s growing sense of security, and his abandonment of denial as an emotional crutch, is mapped out in incremental steps that mirror the bird’s own growth and, of course, eventual discovery of its wings. You can sneer at the metaphor or you can admire the simple, practical manner in which the director embraces it; his documentarist’s eye is in evidence throughout, not least in his guidance of Lens’s pleasingly artless performance. Whether it’s too small for the Academy or not remains to be seen – a bigger win would be for this lovely morsel to bust out of the festival circuit and reach the younger viewers who’d learn the most from it.