When the protagonists are in the critical age of 8-16, it is easy to fall into the trap of victimising them in shallow, almost naive portraits. However, four films in this year’s European Panorama grasped the true nature of that stage of life and the emotional immaturity that comes with it: the Belgian Dardenne brothers’ The Kid with a Bike, Richard Ayoade's Submarine, Peter Mullan’s Neds and Romain Goupil’s Hands Up.
Submarine, its director’s debut, is perhaps the most striking: a young boy, whose parents’ relationship has long since cooled, is afraid of their imminent divorce; he finds a girlfriend who later breaks up with him. What is extraordinary about the story is the colour with which the characters are portrayed and the underlying tension throughout. Though cinematically stylized, nothing about the film is over the top as it maintains a quirky subtlety.
The film vividly brings to mind how distraught and alienated a person can feel as an adolescent. A mix of comedy and drama, it starts with Tate, the hero, daydreaming about how people would react if he committed suicide. He imagines the whole school in mourning and classmates giving television interviews about what a great person he was. Haven’t most of us done that at some point in our childhood?
The theme of peer pressure can be felt throughout, but not once is it portrayed in the blunt and superficial manner that goes down the road of cliché. Tate joins in the bullying of an overweight girl and then thinks of writing her a letter advising her on how to avoid being bullied after he feels the pangs of guilt. Jordana, Tate’s girlfriend, is rather more on the tough side, making the duo a great combination. Distinguished by her short bob and striking red coat, Jordana is a hard-headed pyromaniac, who hates anything remotely romantic despite showing signs of fragility in some moments.
Interestingly enough, Paige was quoted in an article in The Guardian saying that she relates more to the character of Oliver Tate.
More violence can be seen in The Kid with a Bike and Neds, which stands for uneducated delinquents. Both capture a distraught childhood and conflicted relationships with parents. In The Kid With a Bike, Cyril (Thomas Doret) is sent to a children’s home when his father faces financial crisis, while in Neds, John McGill (played first by Greg Forrest and later by Conor McCarron) lives in a poor neighborhood with an alcoholic father and a street gang member brother. In both films the children are exposed to the vulgarity of the street and become part of it. But floating away from sentimentality and melodrama, The Kid with A Bike manages to be deeply moving as it depicts Cyril’s bouts of sorrow and anger with realism. It avoids unnecessary dialogue and uncalled-for explanations.
The intensity is heightened by the lack of music, which makes room for great acting.
For its part, Hands Up revolves around a group of kids who want to help out their Chechen friend Milana, whose family might be deported for immigrating illegally. As a form of protest, they collect food and toys and hide away.
Once again realism dominates, making room for sincere moments such as children drawing on the bathroom’s mirror with toothpaste while brushing their teeth. At the same time, the children are neither fragile nor helpless. They are not innocent but neither are they afflicted with evil. Nor are they heroes despite their act of protest, which requires a level of determination. Though the ending took a somewhat unrealistic turn which some may associate with Hollywood, the realism maintained throughout.
In an interview with Ahram Online, Goupil explains how he worked with the children and found that they could grasp issues like illegal immigration once he used memories of his own childhood and the imagination that comes with it to convey it; he says he turned the theme into a game, instilling a sense of solidarity among the children against the bad people who are the police.