Jun 7, 2018

Teen Movie Thursdays: Nordic coming of age movies

Right On, Man
Dir: Tapio Suominen
This realist Finnish coming of age film, with what seems to be a largely non-professional cast, doesn't appear to have traveled much, but it will be of interest to fans of Aki Kaurismäki, because it features the screen debut of his frequent collaborator Kati Outinen, though in a relatively small part.

The film focuses on a secondary school class for problem kids, all of them boys except for Outinen's Lissu. Initially, it explores the dynamics between the class, but as the film goes on the focus narrows to concentrate first on the dynamic between Jussi (Esa Niemelä) and Pete (Tony Holmström), as they drift further from the class and from their families, then solely on Jussi, as he isolates himself more and more, before potentially looking to Lissu to find a way back in.

Right On, Man paints a fairly bleak picture of teenage life. You get the sense of these kids as drifting, even before we spend an extended evening with Jussi and Pete, as they roam the streets, drinking and spending the proceeds of a robbery that Jussi pulled off. What hits home, even through sometimes uncertain performances, is the credibility of the whole thing. The dialogue has a natural feel, from the way the kids relate to each other to their dismissive attitude to their teacher (Lissu has a habit of walking away, so much so that in the class portrait that gives us the actor's names in the opening credits, Outinen's is over an empty chair).

Tapio Suominen gives the film a strong sense of time and place. We get a feel for the environment these kids are growing up in and the sense that they probably don't see particularly prosperous future. The dramas here are small, but Suominen builds a couple of threads that run through the narrative, even though they are largely off screen. The bad impression Jussi makes on a beat cop and Jussi's potential interest in Lissu (and hers in him) are both seeded early, only to come back around in a sequence that draws together well.   

If you're coming to the film for Kati Outinen, it's worth noting that she's barely in it until fifteen minutes from the end, when Jussi and Lissu re-connect. It's a lovely sequence and Outinen is charming and natural in it, it's easy to see why she might have been noticed, but this is a very small part. Fortunately, Right On, Man offers many other rewards; it's a well observed teen movie with a sense of verisimilitude and an unobtrusive style that draws you into the story and characters. It deserves to be better known.

Lars Ole, 5C
Dir: Nils Malmros
As far as I can tell, Nils Malmros is barely known among English speaking audiences. That needs to change. While he has moved outside the genre, Malmros has, for fifty years now, specialised in coming of age films. The best known is Kundskabens Trae (Tree of Knowledge), listed by the Danish Film Institute as one of the country's 100 greatest films, but this - his second feature - seems to be the film that established Malmros' reputation.

Drawing heavily from his own life, Malmros tells a low key story of 12 year old Lars Ole (Søren Rasmussen) and his classmates. There are petty rivalries, first crushes and moments of childlike mischief, but Malmros' concern isn't big events but the tiny things that shape day to day life when you're somewhere between childhood and adolescence.

Shot on grainy black and white 16mm, the film has a feeling of something observed more than it is staged. Frequently, moments that would have much more emphasis in another film are allowed to play out quietly, often in the background. A good example of Malmros' restraint comes when Lars Ole is being a pain, playing the wrong notes while his sister is practicing the piano, when he makes her cry, the camera views her through the door, before silently showing Lars Ole realising he's upset her more than he meant to. It's a beautifully subtle bit of acting and camerawork that makes us feel as if we are privy to a real moment.

We see a lot of these subtleties in the way the film depicts the politics of the playground, the games of tag and which kids are allowed to play or not, the dominance that older kids are able to exert. This is never more felt than in the way relationships are navigated. Early on we see that Lars Ole has a crush on Inger (Judith Nysom), who is 'dating' Hanse (Lars Randrup Mikkelsen), the way the camera often dwells on the space between them is clearly designed, yet feels totally natural, even in the final sequence when, at a dance, we see Lars Ole join in a square dance, changing partners as he goes and waiting for his brief chance to dance with Inger.

The relationships between the kids, whether it's the rivalry between those who live in a certain apartment complex and those who don't, the pettiness of who is allowed to play tag or not or the teasing and games in the classroom, ring completely true. The performances - all by non-professionals who seem not to have acted again - feel completely unforced, nobody seems to be playing a character or reaching for an emotion at any time.

I've now seen six of Nils Malmros' films, and this is early evidence of his instinctive feel for how to tell a story from a young person's point of view. It's a beautifully constructed film, you feel Malmros' direction rather than seeing it, in that his choices are affecting and clearly purposeful, but barely seem designed. If you have even a passing interest in coming of age cinema, this is a filmmaker you need to discover and Lars Ole, 5C is a perfect entry point to his exceptional filmography.

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