The teenage son of a Flemish drug addict in the Netherlands has to grow up much faster than perhaps he’d like in Cobain, the latest feature from Dutch auteur Nanouk Leopold (Guernsey, Wolfsbergen). The director’s films have long been produced by Stienette Bosklopper through her outfit Circe Films — named after the Greek enchantress, natch — and that collaboration not only continues but is actually expanded, as Leopold here films Bosklopper’s first screenplay. But the story’s rhythm and tonal shifts aren’t always convincing, though astounding newcomer Bas Keizer, in the title role, is certainly a find.
After its premiere in the Berlinale Generation section aimed at teenagers — perhaps not (yet) quite attuned to the film’s arthouse-like approach to storytelling — Cobain will bow commercially in the Netherlands in April. It has already been sold to co-producing Belgium and Germany as well.
Adrift but not without promise.
The film’s strongest sequence takes place about halfway in, when 15-year-old rough-and-tumble teen Cobain (Keizer) puts makeup on in a hotel bathroom and then discovers that Romanian prostitute Adele (Dana Marineci) has secretly stashed a part of her earnings away instead of giving it all to her pimp, Wickmayer (Wim Opbrouck, from Leopold’s It’s All So Quiet). Since Wickmayer, the former mack of Cobain’s drug-addicted mother, Mia (Naomi Velissariou), has taken Cobain under his wing and lets him run errands for him, this is bad news for Adele. “What do you want?” she asks defensively.
Cut to her taking off her clothes and getting into bed and Cobain timidly doing the same. It’s clear he’s never done this before. What makes the scene heartbreaking is not his inexperience but the fact that it becomes clear his behavior is simply that of someone who’s had to learn to fend for himself and turn any situation to his advantage from a young age. Here, he might have impulsively and childishly bargained for more than he can handle. The smears of makeup on his face, almost clown-like because they are the result of curiosity and immaturity more than anything else, underline the absurdity of the situation, while Frank van Eeden’s shallow-focus cinematography also visually echoes the idea that this kid is totally out of his depth.
Just before they have sex — over in less than a minute — Adele gently strokes Cobain’s nonexistent biceps while he barely dares to look at her, the established power dynamic completely subverted as she forgets for a moment she’s being blackmailed and can only see the young boy too shy and clueless to come and get what he insisted was his. Harry de Wit’s hushed, pared-back score further reinforces the moment’s poignancy, less accompanying music than an aural manifestation of the moment’s hesitation, awkward intimacy and unsure probing into the unknown.
It is in moments such as these that a movie can really soar, as Leopold puts together an exhilarating and finely judged combination of performances, mise-en-scene, cinematography, makeup and music. But while this sequence is an absolute knockout, the road there is rocky and uneven, with the film’s first half consisting of as much filler as genuinely necessary moments. The relationship between Cobain and his Flemish mother is sketchily suggested, with Bosklopper’s attempt to mirror the mother’s half-hearted attitude towards her son in her narrative structure not very convincing. Just because Cobain is a teenager who’s adrift — torn between his unconditional love for the only parent he has and the reality she might be more interested in his money so she can buy drugs than in his well-being or them spending time together — doesn’t mean that the audience should be left floating, too.
The pic’s finale is also problematic, representing a physically shocking — though at least partly, one assumes, by design — shift away from what has come before it in terms of tone but finally not something that feels organically part of the same story. The parts before and after the sublime midsection both feel more like interesting screenwriting ideas than fully matured parts of one large narrative sweep or character study.
Thankfully, Keizer proves a mesmerizing presence throughout. His facial features are still quite childlike but are often hardened by his mask-like expressions and his haircut, a distinctive combination of long hair gathered in a man bun — not a boy bun but a man bun — up top and shaved very short on the sides, suggesting someone who’s equally inspired by tough gang members and a successful style icon like David Beckham; someone who wants to look older and more mature but who too obviously copies his role models because he hasn’t yet found his own style.
There’s no explanation for the coincidence that both his mother and her former pimp are Belgian but live in the Netherlands. Otherwise Opbrouck and Velissariou are fine, the former giving a characteristically subdued performance with brief explosions of annoyance or rage and the latter an appropriately more volatile presence who drifts in and out of Cobain’s life whenever it suits her. Marineci impresses in the film’s money shot, so to speak, but her character is otherwise not developed and neither are her female foreign colleagues, who all remain one-note supporting figures.
Production companies: Circe Films, A Private View, Coin Film, VPRO, The Film Kitchen
Cast: Bas Keizer, Naomi Velissariou, Wim Opbrouck, Dana Marineci, Cosmina Stratan, Maria Kraakman, Maartje van de Wetering, Thomas Ryckewaert, Ward Weemhoff, Tamar van den Dop, Oscar van Woensel, Jurre Otto, Tonko Bossen
Director: Nanouk Leopold
Screenplay: Stienette Bosklopper
Producers: Stienette Bosklopper, Lisette Kelder
Director of photography: Frank van den Eeden
Production designer: Elsje de Bruijn
Costume designer: Manon Blom
Editor: Katharina Wartena
Music: Harry de Wit
Casting: Leonie Luttik, Janusz Gosschalk, Anne Chris de Veer
Venue: Berlinale Generation (Generation 14 Plus)
Sales: Beta Cinema
In Dutch, English