Movies tend to to depict jail in one, collective fashion: scummy, bleak, frightening. Juvenile prison, however, is rarely touched upon in cinema. For this writer’s money, the only film to represent it at all was the pretty terrible “United States of Leland.” Although the inclusion of classes, work, sport, etc. are more or less offered in “big boy” prison, the way juvie implements them make it feel more like a super strict boarding school than a place of punishment. Quite an oddity indeed, so much that it’s a wonder why few filmmakers have taken a dip into that world. Leave it to Romania, motherland of broody art house affairs, to set one of their realist dramas in the untapped locale. “If I Want To Whistle, I Whistle,” the second feature by Florin Serban and Romania’s official entry to the Academy Awards, captures the bizarre summer camp vibe well but fails to conjure up any mystery or surprise in the narrative, ultimately going down the road of predictability.
A friendly, no-dialogue exchange between main character Silviu (newcomer George Pistereanu) and his inmate friend open the piece, and immediately the unspoken-yet-powerful sense of brotherhood is established. Serban goes on to enact a rather aestival feel, one of freedom and pleasure — which is an especially contrary sentiment due to the very nature of their predicament. The routine of bullshitting, work, and play is interrupted when Silviu gets an unexpected visit from his younger brother who mentions that their estranged Mother has returned, planning to take him to Italy for good. Our protagonist is less than pleased — he’s getting out in a matter of weeks and cares for his brother, taking credit for his upbringing Mother was MIA and Father was terminally hospitalized. Once the youth leaves, the older sibling simmers in his disappointment, allowing it to sink in before deciding to catch a glimpse of who it was that brought him to the center. Through the barbed-wire fences, done in an alluring, wild noise-filling sequence involving his scouring of every exit gate, his eyes follow the boy out of the complex and to their Mother. One dramatic grip of the fence leads to trouble, though, and the guards accost him. The prison-director inquires into this random outburst but is relatively unimpressed with the teen’s plight, ignoring his plea to grant a day off so he can sort things out with his Mother. Rejected, Silviu could either sit while his only remaining family leaves with an undeserving mother, or he could attempt contact through the risky use of a smuggled cell phone.
This little bit of narrative is stretched until the disastrous third act (which we’ll get to soon enough), coupled with various scenes of inmates either breaking relationship ties and taking advantage of Silviu (bullying him because they know he’s leaving soon), or at attempting to set up a meeting with his mother to confront her about her plan. Building up tension slightly, thankfully there is a penchant (however small) for the unsaid with the director letting scenes breathe and employing only simple dialogue. Also, while admittedly getting to be quite a tiresome trait, the use of hand-held is very reminiscent of the Dardenne brothers, a style that compliments the story well. By focusing tightly on the main character at all times, it amplifies the moody feel of the picture and also allows more of the landscape to be consumed — if the camera weren’t following him constantly, we wouldn’t be treated to all of the nooks and crannies of the establishment; it allows us to really feel it. Through that, it also lends some — though not enough — anxiousness to the tone, invoking a yearn for freedom of the penitentiary. It’s definitely a change from the usual long-tracking shots typical in Romanian fare, a breath of fresh air in those terms – but when not Dardenning, Serban opts for tedious medium shots for conversations, exercising a novice back-and-forth cutting between who’s talking when. At those points, it’s completely without personality and nothing but amateur hour.
Since we know that he clearly doesn’t want his brother to leave, and that he’s in prison (reasons unknown, but he’s there so it must be bad), much of the remaining scenes become increasingly predictable, and the built up tension slowly dissipates. Nothing in the film is striking enough to warrant any further interest, even the shooting style doesn’t pull things far enough to keep attention. What’s worse is that the two upcoming scenes — the chunky emotional ones — fall flat and fall hard.
Those in question are (a) the confrontation with the mother and (b) her son’s subsequent freak out when he doesn’t get his way. They’re two delicate scenes for sure, the emotional core of the movie, so it’s a shame they don’t work well enough (the latter not at all) to rope the viewer in. Silviu’s lengthy meeting with Mom is flat and unbalanced with absolutely no sense of build up, his pissed-off threats garner little more than a shrug-worthy reaction. Performances are there, not incredible but passable, and they could’ve been edited to create a properly affecting response. It’s the weaving that’s off — some cuts seem to be entirely different takes, ones where some deliveries clearly had more impact than others. They’re mixed together half-assedly, sapping the energy of what could have (and should have) been a strong bit.
If its first failure isn’t horrible enough, the third act is slap-to-the-forehead bad. Here, the main character takes a female volunteer hostage and starts making demands, including another audience with his Mother and a getaway car. Really, the director who so finely established character and surroundings in a subtle, silent way should know much better than this, demolishing his promising foundations with each overwrought TV-show-worthy cliches. Once the excruciatingly familiar exchange between hostage-taker and negotiator ends and the main character (along with his hostage) high-tail it out of there, the picture manages to recover a teeny bit with two simple, strong scenes – an impromptu “date” with the hostage and Silviu’s imminent arrest. While the ending note feels rather empty, the scenes themselves are understated and showcase a quiet subtlety that the director is not only fairly good at, but seems to be generally interested in. These moments, including earlier ones, showcase a skill that probably could’ve made the nonsense beforehand actually work. Why he chose to do direct them in the laziest way possible is anyone’s guess.
Oscar voters tend to stay very, very safe for their foreign picks — corny manipulation usually works wonders — so this could very well be a contender, though even the commonplace crap isn’t pushed far enough. What we’re left with feels pretty empty, a rather impressionless feature which should’ve been much more. [C]