A minor entry from the Romanian New Wave, the dreary prison drama "If I Want to Whistle, I Whistle" nevertheless exhibits many of the stronger aspects of social observation present in the films that have emerged from the region. Set in a barren juvenile detention center, the movie works as a grueling coming-of-age story, linking it to the likes of "4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days," even if it lacks the same lasting appeal.
Volatile 18-year-old inmate Silviu (George Pistereanu) exhibits sudden urgency when the younger brother whom he has raised alerts him to the unexpected presence of their previously neglectful mother. Having assumed parental responsibilities for his sibling, Silviu becomes fiercely intent on saving the child from an upbringing similar to the one that he believes caused his own destructive behavior. ("It was you who destroyed me," he tells his eerily withdrawn mother when she pays him a visit. She doesn't offer a rebuttal.) When Silviu learns that his mom wants to leave town with his brother before the older son gets out of detention, he rapidly evolves from street thug to would-be savior. The ensuing scenes take place during Silviu's desperate final week in detention — that is, if he doesn't anger his overlords and cause them to extend his stay. As tensions rise, Silviu finds himself in the unlikely position of needing to play it safe while scrambling to find an early exit strategy.
This trim outline gives "Whistle" enough dramatic ammo to churn along even though it spends a good half hour slowly assembling the details of Silviu's life. Rather than condemn the prison for mistreating its inmates, first-time writer-director Florin Serban (adapting a play by Andreea Valean) takes the environment for granted, making it evident that Silviu lives in an oppressive world much larger than his individual concerns. A stern prison warden urges Silviu to worry only about his own well-being, and no amount of negotiation leads to any greater results. The gradual tick-tick of Silviu's yearning to escape means he's always on edge, whether privately phoning his brother on a smuggled cell phone or just masking his nervousness with a heavy scowl. Rounding out his immediate surroundings, the other inmates never receive the same scrutiny as Silviu, but they do create the perception that he exists in a sea of miscreants, burying the prospects of getting special treatment for his noble cause.
Focusing on penal authorities' ambivalence to the individual needs of youth, "Whistle" exists in a tradition of juvenile crime dramas arguably launched by Alan Clarke's "Scum" and reinvigorated earlier this year with French director Kim Chapiron's Tribeca Film Festival-winning "Dog Pound," which also took place almost entirely within the prison interior. Both "Dog Pound" and "Whistle" build to unsettling acts of desperation in their second halves, although in the latter case a prolonged hostage situation diffuses the tension rather than racketing it up. But even while the movie loses momentum earlier than it should, Serban redeems the setup with a fleeing act of wish fulfillment on the part of his protagonist that turns Silviu into a brief hero of teen rebellion. Lead actor Pistereanu, sharply focused in a career-making performance, has a talent for simultaneously making Silviu seem sympathetic and dangerous, as when he attempts to flirt with a young female social worker through offbeat charm undermined by the larger tragedy of his repressed existence.
Silviu's duality may never reach its full potential, but it nimbly matches the dominant aesthetic of modern Romanian cinema—bleakness. The country has its superstar auteurs (Cristi Puiu, Cristian Mungiu) and plenty of novices with work making the festival rounds ("Belly of the Whale"). "Whistle," a selection at the 2010 Berlin Film Festival and Romania's official entry for the Academy Award, falls into the latter category; as Serban's directorial debut, it's accomplished enough to imply that he has plenty more to say about the Romanian character. Here, he creates a palpable sense of existential yearning that lacks the payoff necessary to justify the sudden violent twist. But he still powerfully conveys Silviu's psychological anguish, emphasizing quiet moments rather than explosions of rage. From start to finish, the frustrated teen remains stuck in the boundaries of the prison's claustrophia-inducing walls, even when he manages to slip beyond them.
criticWIRE grade: B