System Crasher, 2019.
Directed by Nora Fingscheidt.
Starring Helena Zengel, Albrecht Schuch, and Gabriela Maria Schmeide.
On her wild quest for love, 9-year-old Benni’s untamed energy drives everyone around her to despair.
The feature debut of writer-director Nora Fingscheidt dares to tackle a shockingly under-explored issue in cinema centered around troubled youths; uncontrollable anger, and the means through which society can attempt to manage it. That System Crasher‘s 9-year-old protagonist happens to be a girl only makes it that much more divertingly unique.
Benni (Helena Zengel) is a youngster who ends up overcome with anger at any errant moment, especially when someone dares to touch her face. It speaks to a traumatic past, a fraught family unit, constant moves to new foster homes and, now, temporary residence at a group home with other transient children.
But it’s the arrival of Benni’s new school escort, Micha (Albrecht Schuch), who helps illuminate glimmers of hope that Benni’s fast-acting rage can be stymied with attentive one-to-one care, while several prospects for permanent re-housing loom in the periphery.
The social issue at this film’s core is an undeniably important one that’s surely not immediately on the minds of many, be they parent, educator or neither, with Fingscheidt’s incisive script begging the question – how do we house, educate and “fix” problematic children?
Predictably, there’s no all-catch solution, with the majority of the film spent watching social workers try different potential solutions to see which coping strategies and home set-ups work the best. In this stead the film is successful not only as a stirring probe into a damaged mind, but a tribute to the tireless professionals who fight so hard to work a problem that, in many cases, may not even have an amicable solution.
And even when the 118-minute film over-indulges in the repetition of Benni angrily derailing yet another promising prospect, the entire excursion is lent easy watchability by its uniformly wonderful cast.
At the top we have young up-and-comer Helena Zengel, who is required to demonstrate tremendous range as Benni, vacillating from the obvious outward outbursts to some more subtle emoting. A disappointing early phone call Benni receives from her mother, for instance, is wrought with a simmering upset that’s measures more heartbreaking than any fully-blown angry-cry.
And crucially, beneath the screeching, physical attacks and crude protests, there’s a sweetness to Benni that emerges in timid glimpses throughout the film, even if Fingscheidt is too smart to give Benni anything close to a personality transplant by film’s end.
Albrecht Schuch is also remarkable as her escort Micha, his chemistry with Zengel forming the film’s dramatic lynch-pin, while heightening his desperation to prevent Benni from ending up in a fate worse than a foster home, to degrees that even put his job at risk.
Fingscheidt’s direction is also unexpectedly energetic and dynamic, veering away from the formal sombreness the “art-house” crowd is perhaps conditioned to expect. Whenever Benni’s face is touched and a rage-out ensues, the director cuts a frantic staccato of ambiguous, red-hot imagery that aptly conveys Benni’s mental dysfunction.
Benni’s outbursts are also often accompanied by an almost Birdman-esque improv-jazz drum score, which impressively sidesteps the potential for tonal impropriety, instead ensuring the film is far from a self-conscious fest of misery-porn. There is a thin tonal tightrope to be traversed here, and Fingscheidt walks the walk splendidly.
There are a few minor nitpicks that hold the film back from outright greatness, though; the aforementioned two-hour runtime does feel excessive for the material on offer, with the filmmaker over-stating her case more than is necessary or concise. The ending to Benni’s story is also sure to provoke and divide, a frustrating ellipsis which rather undercuts the anxious investment that audiences may feel entitles them to a more resolute final scene.
Two tenacious lead performances power this uniquely frank yet compassionate examination of angry childhood, which with sufficient exposure to audiences should provide a healthy arena for discussion wherever it’s shown.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Shaun Munro – Follow me on Twitter for more film rambling.