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Colossal Youth: Alexis dos Santos’s “Unmade Beds”

Colossal Youth: Alexis dos Santos's "Unmade Beds"

As long there as there are young people living out their dreams in cities, there will always be young filmmakers eager and willing to follow them around churning out Bohemian anomie portraiture. Kids in urban settings constitute a broad enough arena of exploration that we’ll always have the good (Philippe Garrel), the bad (Joe Swanberg), and the indifferent (Christophe Honore); the best we can hope for is that they arrive in something at least approaching equal measures. Alexis Dos Santos’s “Unmade Beds,” a prepubescent Godardian gambol of questionable impact, but unquestionable sincerity, follows the twinned stories of Axl, a Spaniard scouring London for the English father who abandoned him years before, and Vera, recently of France, now squatting in the same messy, overrun loft space as Axl while nursing wounds from a relationship recently dissolved back home. Separately, the pair drink, fuck, dance, listen to a lot of music, occasionally run their hands over banisters, railings, and other objects in close-ups that suggest a concrete tactility absent in their interpersonal arrangements.

Axl’s the pasty mop-headed creation of Fernando Tielve (recognizable from Guillermo del Toro’s “The Devil’s Backbone”), and his arc is the more solidly drawn of the two. The search for his father lasts about as long as a shot of a laptop displaying the man’s name and contact information–he’s a local realtor; and Axl spends the rest of the movie fighting through hangovers and failing to convincingly dress the part of an apartment-hunting rich kid, all the while querying the buttoned-up man about his past life. Meanwhile, Vera (Deborah Francois, ethereal in “L’Enfant,” more earthy here as a brunette) works at a bookstore, produces browsing happenstance by deliberately filing novels astray (ah, quirk) and tentatively romances a man without ever telling him her name. The film flashes back to the breaking point with her previous lover — an epistemological discrepancy wherein he views pairs of lovers as individual planets encircling one another, while she sees them as bubbles that combine, detach, and share space and shape.

Throughout, Axl and Vera brush by each other, not quite coming close enough to touch, but near enough to suggest the pair might eventually end their searching together. As he teases out their stories, Dos Santos employs a battery of reliably trendy formal techniques: jump cutting, time lapses, discontinuous image and sound, artfully askew handheld work, wistful voicings of poetic longings on the soundtrack, shifts in film stock, focus (all that’s missing, truly, are intrusive intertitles). Pairing borrowed stylistics with a duo of pretty young things searching for that elusive “something” should have resulted in an experience far less likable than “Unmade Beds” (see: “Away We Go”), but the film’s shaggy earnestness veers away from cynical posturing. Perhaps it’s the lightly autobiographical cast (apparently dos Santos emerged from a similar scene), or perhaps it’s the strength of the performers — Tielve sells wide-eyed, booze-addled, and sad, and Francois believably cultivates a wounded mystery compelling enough to lead an unshaven young Brit into an anonymous affair.

Thankfully featuring humanly recognizable sex, a satisfying narrative twist (Vera and Axl don’t meet until nearly an hour of screen time has elapsed, and even then, dos Santos denies us the meant-to-be happy ending the bifurcated structure points towards), and a fair hit-to-miss ratio on the soundtrack, “Unmade Beds” is a decent foray into modern youth culture. This doesn’t mean it makes me miss Lynne Ramsay any less (“Morvern Callar” handled a not dissimilar scene with more panache and complexity) or allows me to stop wondering how far removed it might be from a feature-length episode of BBC’s “Skins,” but that dos Santos even approaches either is rare indeed.

[An indieWIRE review from Reverse Shot.]

[Jeff Reichert is co-founder and editor of Reverse Shot. He is currently directing his first film, Gerrymandering

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