It's not easy to be cute and bleak at the same time, but Hounds, the debut feature from Ann-Kristin Reyels, pulls it off. An edgily tender coming-of-age story, it lays the acerbic social observation of Mike Leigh over the gritty provincial realism of the brothers Dardenne. It's let down only by its ambiguously dark ending, a Euro-script-workshop cop-out which is not justified by what has preceded.
But this is still a convincing debut, which should strike a chord with more resilient audiences in Germany and should see more festival action beyond the Berlinale, interesting arthouse distributors elsewhere in Europe.
Though set in the sparse and rugged northwestern corner of the Brandenburg region, Hounds is not particularly interested in German politics or history. This could be about any rural nowhere, wherever urban incomers are viewed with distrust and locals are dour, inarticulate masochists.
The story is told mainly from the viewpoint of Lars, a 16-year-old boy who has moved from Berlin with his father, a morose and slightly dazed loser who hopes to convert a barn on his property into a wedding venue.
Part of the charm lies in Hounds' laconic development of the characters and their relationships, which at first seem as frozen as the landscape. Lars spends more time with his two dogs than any humans, until he meets Marie (Berndt), a local deaf girl with whom he begins a tenderly chaste love affair.
The camera (nicely jagged, asserting its independence from the story at certain key moments) returns obsessively to certain quasi-symbolic locations - like a frozen lake where Lars discovers a dead rat imprisoned in the ice - but the risk of over-weighty messages is defused by how Reyels casually cuts back to the predominantly comic register of the domestic scenes.
There's an equal and opposite risk of social caricature here,inherent in characters like Lars' aunt Jana, with whom his father (abandoned by his wife, Jana's sister) is having an affair. But somehow the mix of light and dark works - perhaps because the Lars-Marie bond, affecting yet unsentimental, acts as a unifying bassline.
Young actor Constantin von Jascheroff turns in a constantly watchable performance as Lars, a sensitive adolescent poised halfway between vulnerability and cynicism. Luise Berndt is an affecting Marie, tough and together despite her disability, while Sven Lehmann is perfect as her gruff, hidebound, but basically decent father.
Constantin von Jascheroff