Two misfit preteens make a secret plan to prevent one’s father from being stolen away in The Witch Hunters, the first feature from Serbia’s Rasko Miljkovic. Likable enough (if you don’t take its homicidal plotline seriously) but an odd choice for Sundance, having played dozens of fests since its TIFF 2018 premiere, this entry in the thin Kids section appears to have been picked for its handling of disability. Its unsappy attitude toward a protagonist with cerebral palsy is welcome, but that factor alone does little for the Serbian-language pic’s appeal stateside.
Mihajlo Milavic’s Jovan is a sweet-faced kid who can get around on his own, but feels self-conscious enough about his condition that he always arrives at school early, getting into class before others can see him struggle down the hallway. He hates having to do physical therapy every day, but doctors insist that’s his best bet for continued mobility.
Friendly kid flick works best if you don’t think much about it.
Protective of his personal space, Jovan resents it when he’s made to share his desk at school with new student Milica (Silma Mahmuti). But the rough-edged girl unilaterally decides that the two will be friends, and after she surprises Jovan with an unannounced visit to his house, they bond quickly. (Both child actors appear to be making their screen debuts here, and acquit themselves very well.)
The two are goofing around one afternoon when Milica drops a bomb: “I know a real witch,” she declares. The wicked woman has “bewitched my dad,” making him behave unrecognizably around her mom. Milica rejects the obvious explanation out of hand: “No one can fall in love twice,” she angrily declares. “It’s not natural.” Having had to spend time around Dad with his new girlfriend, Svetlana, Milica interprets exotic things like yoga, black salt and herbal teas as parts of the spell-casting. The children start making secret plans to foil this sorcery and reunite Milica’s parents.
The movie’s chipper tone is well suited to the heroes’ playful-serious plotting, much of it done over newly acquired walkie-talkies. But the lightness belies something disconcerting in a film targeting 8-to-12-year-olds: These misguided kids aren’t planning to steal Svetlana’s potions or cast a competing spell on Dad — they intend to kill the woman, driving a hatpin into the base of her skull.
They don’t manage to do it, of course. But nothing in the film’s third act addresses the seriousness of what Jovan and Milica attempt. They might as well be trying to turn the family dog into a dragon.
Setting that aside, the script by Marko Manojlovic and Milos Kreckovic deals more believably with Jovan’s condition, watching him struggle with his body’s limitations and making his embarrassment about them an obstacle to friendship. Here, CP is not the end of the world but an unusually large hassle to endure. So long as he can avoid committing a felony with his new pal, Jovan’s going to be fine.
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (Kids)
Production company: Action Production
Cast: Mihajlo Milavic, Silma Mahmuti
Director: Rasko Miljkovic
Screenwriters: Marko Manojlovic, Milos Kreckovic
Producer: Jovana Karaulic
Director of photography: Miksa Andjelic
Production designer: Aljosa Spajic
Costume designer: Milena Milenkovic
Editor: Djordje Markovic
Composer: Nevena Glusica