Coming-of-age movies about teenagers forced to grow up quickly through difficult times are a dime a dozen, but it's safe to say none has ever quite been like Australian director Cate Shortland's Lore, her sophomore feature after the well-received Somersault. Nominally, Lore is the tale of a young girl whose world is turned upside down when war knocks on her door, taking away her parents and forcing her to become surrogate mother to her four siblings and lead them to safety at their grandmother's on the other side of the country. No prizes for noticing the Red Riding Hood parallels, but Ms. Shortland if anything underplays the fairy-tale references, letting the story itself - adapted from a novel by Rachel Seiffert - bring them bobbing up to the surface every now and then.

     In having to rely on herself and her wits to make it through a destroyed country with four younger children in tow, Lore (a consummately mature performance by Saskia Rosendahl), is violently confronted with the world outside the cocoon she was raised in. There's a curious connection between her dejected road trip through an impoverished nation and that depicted in Marcelo Lordello's Eles Voltam, where a teenager left by the roadside is forced to traverse an impoverished Brazil to return home. That sense of loss, disorientation, indecision, the feeling that everything has just been upended, carries more than a trace of André Téchiné's Strayed, another film about people thrown out of their cocoons by war.

     What makes the difference in Ms. Shortland's film, though, is its WWII setting: Lore is the eldest daughter of a high-ranking SS officer with responsibilities in the Holocaust, and it's defeated Germany that she and her siblings have to cross on their way from the Black Forest to the Baltic Sea where the grandmother lives. Lore's statute as a child of the Hitler Youths gives a whole new twist to her confrontation with the world outside - not only is she a normal teenager having to learn to manoeuvre the adult world, she also carries the added stigma of having been raised within a cocoon that reality is violently destroying around her. Lore now has to navigate blindly an ever-shifting world where all facades have crumbled and the sheer weight of the Hitler years falls squarely on her shoulders.

     What's so smart about Ms. Shortland's film is that, by depicting the gradual awakening to the world of a girl educated in a strict, cult-like manner, Nazism thus becomes an allegory for all kinds of fundamentalism and intolerance. Lore is no pure, innocent child - more like a deer in the headlights - but Ms. Shortland does not pretend otherwise, and in so doing gives her a humanity and a complexity that are usually absent from the far too easy shorthand clichés used to depict 1930s and 1940s Germany. There is no shorthand in Lore; instead, there's a sense of dread and wonder, born out of Lore and the Dressler kids' trek through a wilderness as idyllic as it is terrifying, with Adam Arkapaw's terrifically sensitive outdoor lensing capturing the majesty and awe of landscapes that become tell-tale signs of what the kids are going through. In that sense, Lore is indeed a take on the classic, dark, character-building fairy-tale (long before the Disneyfied, sanitized versions), but also a film that isn't afraid of facing the dark. That, indeed, is also what coming of age means; facing your fears and coming out the other side, from a teenager into an adult.

      Smart, sensitive, thought-provoking, Lore is one of the most unexpected surprises I've had at the movies in a long time.

Cast: Saskia Rosendahl, Kai Malina, Nele Trebs, Ursina Lardi, Hans-Jochen Wagner, Mika Seidel, André Frid, Eva-Maria Hagen
Director: Cate Shortland
Screenplay: Ms. Shortland, Robin Mukherjee, from the novel The Dark Room by Rachel Seiffert
Cinematography: Adam Arkapaw (colour, widescreen)
Music: Max Richter
Designer: Silke Fischer
Costumes: Stefanie Bieker
Editor: Veronika Jenet
Producers: Karsten Stöter, Liz Watts, Paul Welsh, Benny Drechsel (Rohfilm, Porchlight Films, Edge City Films)
Australia/Germany, 2012, 109 minutes

Screened: distributor advance press screening, UCI El Corte Inglés 14, June 11th 2013


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