The perils and occasional benefits of growing up bohemian are subtly and wryly evoked in The Unpolished, a confident debut feature from German director Pia Marais which premiered in Rotterdam, where it was one of the Tiger Award winners.
An elliptical, somewhat dreamlike narrative, impressionistic directing style and generous, unpredictable approach to her characters marks Marais out as a distinctive voice, to be compared to Argentina's Lucrecia Martel, whose La Nina Santa this distantly resembles as a girl's eye view of troubled adolescence. Charismatic casting - with an impressive debut by Ceci Chuh - should enhance appeal to adventurous arthouse distributors, and festivals will take to Marais as a name to watch, especially given the current upsurge of interest in young German cinema.
Chuh plays 14-year-old Stevie, caught in the undertow of her parents' unsettled life. She's first seen with mother Lily (Schiller), moving into a newly abandoned house in a German country town.
Soon, Stevie's rakish father Axel (Birol), just out of prison for drug dealing, joins their unlikely extended family made up by louche Ingmar (Friedrich) and vampish French newcomer Louise (Preiss). Dreaming of an alternative life, and claiming to be the daughter of a diplomat, Stevie - who rebels by being disarmingly sensible - takes control of her life, demanding a place at the local school, and making friends with neighbourhood kids, some of whom are bewildered to find themselves drawn into Stevie's eccentric household.
With its partly autobiographical premise, based on Marais's own upbringing by hippy parents, The Unpolished cleverly counterpoints the languid chaos of Lily and Axel's unravelling universe with the urgency and coherence of Stevie's viewpoint, as she tries to make sense of the world around her.
If the narrative is sometimes confusing, it's largely because of the elliptical approach to time, conveying a sense of adolescent experience as a maze to be negotiated. It's not always clear, for example, why Stevie is on the road at particular times or sleeping in hotels with her parents, but as the film goes on, her world falls into place.
The film's generosity grants a certain richness of character to the people around Stevie, belying conventional adult expectations: for example Ingmar, at first sight the sleaziest of Axel's hangers-on, turns out to be a vulnerable and generally sympathetic figure, thanks to Georg Friedrich's shaded performance.
As Axel, Birol Unel (Head On, Transylvania) plays a man whose hipster aura has got him so far in life but may have run out of steam, and up-and-coming French name Joana Preiss (familiar from Christophe Honore's Ma Mere and Dans Paris) injects a dash of sexual swagger.
Cinematographer Diego Martinez Vignatti, whose own directing debut La Marea also played in Rotterdam, sets a tone of atmospheric realism, less stylised than his work in Carlos Reygadas's Japon and Battle In Heaven.
Pandora Film Production
Diego Martinez Vignatti