Dir: Perttu Leppa. Finland. 2003. 113 mins.
Feelgood comedy Pearls And Pigs was seen by around 1 in 40 Finns in the weeks after its home release late last year, and while being big in Finland is no watertight guarantee of international success, this likeable teen comedy has some serious Hollywood remake potential.
The premise is neat and fertile: four layabout brothers (mother dead, father in the clink) discover that they have a younger half-sister with a fine singing voice - so they decide to make some much-needed cash by entering her for a TV talent competition.
What charms about Pearls And Pigs is the way that it turns this high-concept skeleton into something fully human by fleshing out character and setting, rooting its laughs in a desperate, disenfranchised working-class Finland of karaoke clubs, black market alcohol scams, broken homes and broken furniture.
With its cross-generational appeal, it is robust enough to survive subtitling and dubbing for the overseas market, though it is likely to be a decidedly niche, word-of-mouth proposition outside of Scandinavia.
A sprinkle of Finnish pop in-jokes will be lost on overseas viewers; but the central song is catchy enough to break through the language barrier. Distributors in territories with relatively sophisticated and adventurous 18-30 markets may well be persuaded to take a gamble on this light but well-crafted underdog comedy. Audiences elsewhere will just have to sit tight and wait for any possible remake. The film, which recently screened in the Kinderfilmfest 14plus sidebar at Berlin, also screens at AFM this week.
The Hirvonen family - consisting of a likeable but good-for-nothing father and four likeable but good-for-nothing post-adolescent sons - makes a living out of selling booze (a commodity which is highly regulated in Finland) from the back of a van. In an attempt to raise enough cash to pay back the thugs from the alcohol warehouse, father and sons stage an inept and ill-fated hold-up of a state-run bottle shop.
Dad is sent to prison, and his four sons are forced to consider the alarming option of gainful employment. Salvation comes in the form of their nine-year-old half-sister Saara (Amanda Pilke), who turns up on their doorstep after being kicked out of the house by her uncaring hooker mother.
In between teaching the painfully shy Saara important, character-forming skills like jumping up and down on the bed, how to exorcise a possessed Barbie, and the joys of shoplifting, the brothers discover, by chance, that she is a talented singer, and they decide to enter her for a tacky TV kiddie talent contest with a big cash prize.
Saara bonds especially with Lade, the most responsible of the four brothers (played by bright young Finn Mikko Leppilampi, who won Best Actor prize for this role at the 2004 Jussi Awards, Finland's national film bash); but as soon as there is a whiff of money in the air, the absentee mother returns to claim her daughter, setting up the plot's final push to its satisfyingly twisty ending.
Writer-director Perttu Leppa has a real feel for comedy, both visual (one of the four brothers uses a garlic squeezer to crush pills into his beer) and verbal ('Hey! These books are in alphabetical order!' says another brother on a rare visit to the local library).
Minor characters like the two thugs, Pig and Sty, are as flat as Disney kid-flick baddies, but the film reaches a more sophisticated demographic with its left-field, anti-PC sense of humour and with the rich inflections of its core story, which is about how kids can get warmth and solidarity out of the most unlikely and atypical family units.
Production co: Talent House
International sales: Nordisk Film International Sales
Producer: Jarkko Henkula
Screenplay: Perttu Leppa
Cinematography: Jyrki Arnikari
Production design: Pirjo Rossi
Editor: Kimmo Taavila
Music: Pauli Hanhimieni
Main cast: Mikko Leppilampi, Laura Birn, Amanda Pilke, Unto Helo, Timo Lavikainen, Jimi Paakallo, Pekka Valkeejarvi