Belief in one's work, the overarching desire to tell this story to the best of one's abilities, an almost irrepressible need to share a tale with the world; all of these are excellent reasons to invest yourself in a film, but are no guarantee that the results will be at the height of the ambitions. Such is the case with veteran German director Edward Berger's return to the big screen after a decade working in television: this well-meaning tale of a ten-year-old who pretty much runs the household while his mother is out and about carousing looks much like a rehash of earlier, better films, halfway between the social problem picture and the small-scale, art-house drama.
Jack reminds you alternately of the urban, working-class grittiness of the Dardenne brothers, of the poetic look at a child's ability to blend in with her surroundings in Valérie Massadian's Nana, or of the Japanese master Hirokazu Kore-eda's tender, clear-eyed look at children caught in family affairs. In fact, Mr. Berger's film, developed over a few years and co-scripted with actress Nelle Mueller-Stöfen (who is also on-screen) is clearly indebted to Mr. Kore-eda's Nobody Knows while being far too close narratively to Swiss director Ursula Meier's more affecting Sister. As in Ms. Meier's film, the centre of the tale is a young man, Jack (the preternaturally confident Ivo Pietzcker), who lives in Berlin pretty much on his own and takes care of his younger brother Manuel (Georg Arms) while mother Sanna (Luise Heyer), who seems to have no fixed job and is prone to leaving the two kids on their own for days on end. Here, though, Ms. Mueller-Stöfen and Mr. Berger lead the story into a welcome absence of moral judgements, as Jack, taken into a social care center and missing the self-reliance and freedom of his previous life, eventually goes in search of his mother and tries to recapture what he once had.
Presented as a sort of precocious, speeded-up coming of age tale about a boy forced to grow up way too fast and about to learn the hard way what taking responsibility means, Jack benefits strongly from the dry, matter-of-fact presentation of the narrative and Mr. Berger's attention to his actors, as well as a very strong sense of place. Unfortunately, the overly demonstrative score from Christoph Kaiser and Julian Maas tends to bring out the sentimental whimsy the director is trying to evade, and the general story arc comes out as overly schematic, hitting a number of apparently preset narrative beats that seem to format the film so it can fit in a specific festival, television and/or arthouse slot. It's honest, well-meaning, but ultimately utterly anonymous.
Cast Ivo Pietzcker, Georg Arms, Luise Heyer, Nelle Mueller-Stöfen
Director Edward Berger; screenwriters Mr. Berger and Ms. Mueller-Stöfen; cinematographer Jens Harant (colour); composers Christoph M. Kaiser and Julian Maas; designer Christiane Rothe; costumes Esther Walz; editor Janine Herhoffer; producers Jan Krüger and René Römert; production companies Port-au-Prince Film und Kultur Produktion in co-production with Cine Plus Filmproduktion, Mixtvision Filmproduktion, Neue Bioskop Film and Zero West Filmproduktion, in association with Hessischer Rundfunk and ARTE
Screened February 7th 2014, Berlinale Palast, Berlin (Berlinale 2014 official competition press screening)