The feature debut for German writer director Theresa Von Eltz promises much with an impressive panoply of dramatic elements but ultimately fails to bring them together into a satisfying whole.
Set in an adolescent psychiatric emergency unit at Christmas time, we are introduced one by one to the principal characters. Alex (Paula Beer) has just entered the unit having harmed herself after the latest conflict between her estranged parents. In a nicely restrained scene we learn that her mother has been systematically controlling her with emotional blackmailing. Alex joins outgoing Lara (Jella Haase) a rebellious, provocative party girl from a well-to-do family, and Fedja (Moritz Leu) a nervous Georgian immigrant who’s traumatised after being bullied repeatedly at school. Also newly arrived, direct from the secure ward, is Timo (Jannis Niewohner) just the kind of explosive hot head that threatens to send Fedja into a full panic attack.
Watching over them all during the Christmas break is young psychiatrist Dr. Wolff (Clemens Schick) a lenient and good natured doctor whos’s methods are repeatedly at odds with by-the-books Sister Simone (Anneke Kim Sarnau).
All the elements are there for a cracking good drama – young, volatile lives thrown together at the most stressful time of the year for many people. Yet despite the promising scenario, the narrative doesn’t really introduce as much tension or conflict as you expect it to. Each time conflict is approached, it tends to be snuffed out all too hastily.
This is most clearly evident in the case of Timo, a glaring tinderbox of violence, who is redeemed by his peers before he’s really had the chance to earn our respect or good will.
The characters are all set up nicely by a talented and attractive cast, but up to a certain point they cease to develop. To be honest, collectively the cast are a bit too attractive. No one minds a bit of eye candy, but seriously, they are all so good looking.
Ironically, Von Eltz delivers the most drama in the quieter scenes. When Lara’s parents pay a visit the day before her birthday, because they’re too busy planning a social event on the actual day, there’s an impressive economy to the dynamics of their exchange.
The problem is the film bigger notes come off less impressively. They seem rote and predictable by comparison.
There’s enough here to suggest Von Eltz is a talent to look out for, and as a tech package, it’s pretty slick. There’s a feeling too that we’re watching an ensemble of charismatic young actors that are all primed for big futures. Sadly, this will likely go down on their filmographies as a respectable but unremarkable entry.
4 Kings is currently screening at the German Film Festival
Richard Leathem @dickiegee