Monday, March 11, 2013

Almost 18 (Kohta 18)

ALMOST 18 (Kohta 18)         B-                   
Finland  (110 mi)  2012  d:  Maarit Lalli

There were five of us guys… I think we all had normal families. Normal problems. Normal feelings. There was nothing we couldn’t overcome. And then one year, for some reason, everything started going to shit.                   —Joni (Ben Thompson Coon)

A big winner at the 2013 Finland Jussi Awards, winning Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Original Screenplay, yet despite the acclaim, there are plenty of drawbacks to this film, where the sketchy portraits often feel isolated and lead nowhere, never really connecting the dots to an overall dramatic theme.  While it’s the coming-of-age saga of five male friends who are about to turn 18, a major step in one’s life as it’s symbolic of young adulthood and possibly moving away from home, the film is divided into five twenty-minute segments highlighting each kid, sarcastically narrated by the oldest who has already turned 18, Joni (Ben Thompson Coon), seen in the opening segment in family therapy acknowledging he’s never really had a single happy moment with his family.  While there is plenty of humor, not the least of which is the self-effacing Finnish take on their nation’s inept hockey team that perpetually loses to both Sweden and Russia, the individual segments highlight the family dysfunction which at times can get dramatically serious and overly involved, where at times the parents troubling behavior seems destined to drive their kids out of the house, a feeling they already shamefully regret even though it hasn’t happened yet.  Written by the director and her son, Henrik Mäki-Tanila who plays Karri, seemingly the most well adjusted kid, seen getting often hilarious driving lessons from his mother, Elina Knihtiä, the star of The Good Son (Hyvä poika) (2011), who knows her son’s habits well, ordering him out of the car to take a breath test after he’s been out drinking all night, but they’re the happiest together, as they continually poke fun at one another with good-humored sarcasm.  If the rest of the film was as good as this segment the film would be highly recommended.  It’s easily the most intimately personal of the bunch, as without a father in the home, these two really care about each other.  Nonetheless, he’d much prefer hanging out with the guys, who at one point or another celebrate each others 18th birthday in style, seen during the summer jumping off a rock cliff into the sea, where there’s a youthful enthusiasm usually enhanced by typical adolescent experiences with alcohol and smoking pot. 

While girls are present, they don’t really figure prominently in the film, which is a bit surprising, as you’d think sex would be all these guys think about.  Pete (Anton Thompson Coon), yes, real life brothers with the actor playing Joni, does have girlfriend problems of his own, caught up in the abortion dilemma, comforting his girlfriend after she takes an abortion pill.  His biggest surprise, however, is reserved from his parents who happily inform him on his 18th birthday that his mother is pregnant.  Pete goes into a deliriously self-centered extended rant on the woes of being a teenager, railing against his parents, where he literally curses them out for acting like kids who ought to be ashamed of themselves.  His parents, meanwhile, sit there quietly holding hands just waiting for him to conclude his tirade, glad that he’s taking it so well.  Easily the most poignant sequence is André (Karim Al-Rifai), seen picking up his little brother at daycare when his mother, who’s rarely at home, has forgotten.  The relationship between the two brothers beautifully expresses brotherly tenderness, even with the youngest crying out for attention, usually inappropriately, as he’s continually left alone, where André is the only real parent he knows, so he constantly bargains for more time together.  André struggles with juggling his own life, including schoolwork, buying groceries, preparing food, putting his brother to bed, calming him afterwards when he has nightmares, and after finally getting him asleep, having to greet his loud and heavily intoxicated mother when she arrives at the door around midnight with a lecherous guy on her arm.  His mother (Mari Perankoski) is easily the most despicable character in the film, suggesting a reversal of roles, where it’s the parents that act more childishly irresponsible than their fairly well behaved children.          

Perhaps the most bizarre cultural reflection of Finnish child-rearing is the absent alcoholic father, where Akseli (Arttu Lähteenmäki) spends the weekend with his grandparents, who politely disappear when his non-verbose father arrives, inviting his son into the woods to go hunting, where his father continually drinks beer and the two of them sit there in an elevated wooden hunter’s nest without uttering a sound.  It’s only fitting they have a Finnish sauna where his father jumps into the freezing river afterwards while Akseli grabs a beer and quickly searches through his father’s shirt for cigarettes.  This relationship might be sad if it wasn’t so pathetic, offering plenty of dour insight into the remote emotional isolation of Scandinavia.  Joni’s segment is first and last, dressed up in an oversized, furry wolf costume at the Linnanmäki amusement park in Helsinki, where young girls love to run up to him and squeeze his soft fur, where he is seen surreally riding his bike or walking next to the sea in costume. When we meet his mother, Niina Nurminen, she appears young and vivacious, but instead of recalling what it’s like to be a moody, self-absorbed teenager, she becomes openly suspicious and hounds her son, pestering him with questions once she discovers his love of pot smoking.  His mother literally freaks out, showing a giant-sized crack in the armor of her all-controlling world, where she runs her family like a drill sergeant expecting everyone to pass inspection.  Is it any wonder Joni is drawn to the mellow, more laid-back mood of pot smoking?  And while it’s true, he’s a stone cold pothead, it doesn’t limit his prospects for the future, as he’s intelligent, socially outgoing, probably the leader of the group, and would likely succeed at anything he attempted.  At the moment, however, he takes his furry wolf outfit to all-girl parties, becoming something of a stripper and hired sex object, a nighttime job that covers his drug expenses.  Featuring plenty of naked backsides, a recurring image is seeing the group of five pilfering a sofa to sit comfortably overlooking some natural landscape, as if suspended in a state of inertia, where the film often feels more like a collection of vignettes, where what’s missing is a common thread holding it all together. 

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