aka Saša
Screened in September 2010 / Reviewed in October 2010 / Click Here to Comment
Director: Dennis Todorović. Cast: Saša Kekez, Željka Preksavec, Pedja Bjelac, Tim Bergmann, Yvonne Yung Hee, Jasin Mjumjunov, Ljubiša Lupo Grujčić, Arno Kempf, Tedros Teclebrham, Fang Yu. Screenplay: Dennis Todorović.
Twitter Capsule: Funny-sad coming-out drama with blankish protag, aloof hunk, Ethnic Family That Isn't Ready; amiable but so overfamiliar

Photo © 2010 Eastart Pictures/Strand Releasing
In terms of my experience of the festival so far, Sasha is sort of the anti-My Joy. That film, for me, is close to a masterpiece, but it's so willfully enigmatic and formally specific in its storytelling that I find it hard to recommend with confidence outside a group of cinephile friends who have a certain kind of relationship to movies—and even then, it so dares its audience to follow along on unpredictable paths that it's unsurprisingly divisive even among its most eligible converts. Sasha, by contrast, is a film I don't rate very highly but have already recommended to a friend, because it's exactly what she's hoping it will be, and I'm sure she'll have a great time. It knows its audience very well, but its means of ingratiating itself with that audience are almost entirely narrative and emotional (form feels, at best, like an afterthought), and its overall impulse is to tell a story of a type we more or less know already, with only the most modulated tweaks. It capably gratifies appetites, sometimes movingly, very often too broadly, that are not, as it happens, my appetites, as a gay viewer who's a lot more interested in gutsy, formally conditioned explorations of desire, of any stripe, or even of no articulable "stripe" (Lynch, Cronenberg, Denis), than I am in coming out stories, unless they're finessed with a sure aesthetic hand or a strong, unique point of view in the writing that I don't really see in Todorović's film.

In fact, virtually across the board, I kept wanting Sasha to aim a little higher. The writing is full of expository declamations uttered on our behalf but almost laughably gratuitous within the world of the characters: "Back in Bosnia, where we picked up Pero..." uttered to a car full of people who were there, including Pero. "We both have auditions tomorrow, in case you forgot," says Asian-German violin student Jiao (Yvonne Yung Hee) to her best friend Sasha (Saša Kekez), who could not possibly have forgotten this. Sasha's mom, Stanka (Željka Preksavec), wants more than anything for him to nail his piano recital for the board of judges, lacking the slightest inkling, if you'll forgive my crudeness, that Sasha would much rather nail his piano teacher, Gebhard (Tim Bergmann). We're meeting Sasha, I would guess, not long after he has fully understood this about himself and shortly before he's ready to start telling people, including the teacher, who is an encouraging and empathetic tutor of music but not all that interested in any other kind of bond with his teenaged pupil. The film has a little trouble deciding whether this is perfectly reasonable—using Gebhard's sudden job offer in Vienna as a way to force Sasha's hand and displace Gebhard's motives for saying no onto external factors—or whether he is a handsome, aloof narcissist of a kind that are specifically cultivated in special greenhouses by screenwriters in this genre.

Bergmann does some work but not quite enough to resolve Gebhard into something more than a stock role. Even at that, the vague cloud around his personality and priorities ought to feel like a relief from the harsh harrumphing of Sasha's father Vlado (Pedja Bjelac), who is just as obviously the rigid immigrant father harping on the virtues of the homeland as Sasha's older brother Boki (Jasin Mjumjunov) is the game, spaniel-ish insouciant who ribs Sasha about his passions but, having guessed his secret, is programmed written to be supportive. Note that there are actually two immigrant fathers built into Sasha as uncomprehending bullies, largely so that Vlado comes off a bit more approachable than Jiao's commandeering pop. Boki also harbors a crush on Jiao, who is desperately hoping that Sasha has a crush on her until she guilelessly realizes that her best friend has something different to confess. That uncle, Pero, whom we picked up in Bosnia, is here for some light, stoogy comic relief when he isn't stumbling haplessly on some inflammatory knowledge, or knocking holes in the wall of the family bathroom in a none-too-subtle corollary to the holes in the family's own foundation, existing ones as well as new ones.

Boki has a tattoo, dedicated to Jiao, that spurs a barking argument with his father that's mostly here to foreshadow how Vlado will react to the even more upending revelation of Sasha's sexuality (though I credit Bjelac with handling his close-up in that ineluctable moment with memorable sadness and confused authority). Jiao's very name does double duty as a homonym of an off-putting word in this Montenegrin family's native tongue. Gebhard's older, plumper friend Peter (Arno Kempf), obviously fighting the urge to pine for him as he once did, and as Sasha does now, gets recuperated into the narrative in a new way toward the finale. Everyone in the movie feels like they're here to fit into a gleeful narrative knot. Some audiences will appreciate this tactic for its ingenuity in tying together so many threads in so many different ways, and others (me included) will find these strategies much too front-and-center, as though braiding strands together that only exist so as to be braided is enough to build a film around. It's a paradigm of which I'm just not very enamored, and it backs the movie into too many corners, as when a pistol precipitously drops into the action as an urgent way to keep that chessboard-style plot moving along, and when Stanka walks into Sasha's empty bedroom and, wouldn't you know, goes right to the one drawer in a crowded space where he has stashed away hidden evidence of exactly what he's trying to conceal. Maybe someone guided Stanka there and I missed it, but I don't think so. Maybe it could have been shot or written so to allow Stanka more than supernatural intuition: maybe she's found things in just this spot before, and like a lot of parents, she takes the guilty risk of spying on her kids and poking around crannies they imagine to be private, just because she's frustrated at having no better way to get to know them. But none of that nuance or mystique announces itself in this moment, or in most moments. It just looks like a necessary swerve in a coherent but really too coherent narrative game-plan, one that's all been worked out in advance. Though as far as that goes, Stanka's evolution, which keeps trying to work its way closer to the heart of the story, feels ill attended-to by the conclusion, rendering a fistful of major transitions for that character in perfunctory short hand, and counting on the actress to supply a poignancy that the script has omitted to flesh out.

I will happily grant Sasha a measure of moving emotion in the final encounter between father and son, even if it feels abrupt within the structure of the screenplay, and it kind of undersells the scale of what's happening to Vlado at that instant. There's a funny, painfully awkward scene of Sasha trying to barrel his way out of an auditorium after his audition and making a big hash of his exit. The shot on Jiao's face as Sasha builds to a testimony we have guessed but she hasn't is almost religious in its gathering rapture, and it makes the story beat work. When a neighbor of Vlado's asks, late in the movie, "Is that your queer son or what?" the joshed father offers a gratifying and somewhat unexpected retort, and had I seen the movie with an audience, I imagine they would have clapped. But the slapstick bidet jokes, and the familiar but broad strokes of culture clash, and the hesitant lead performance, and the bland pop song-score: I just couldn't jive to most of it. I'm not trying to be supercilious to the audience who will savor this kind of bittersweet but mostly sweet coming-out story when I say it's just not my bag, baby, and if I felt better about the lighting or the narrative manipulations, I'd extend more benefit of the doubt. I just saw too much of the familiar here, but if you're reading this review thinking, "Who cares how it's shot?" or "I love these sorts of movies," or even "It's a big deal to me that they exist," then I'm not denying you might be charmed. Grade: C–

VOR: (1)   (What is this?)
Again, Sasha's virtues lie almost completely in not over-straining itself in ambition or originality. Conceivably, one could argue that it casts some predictable dynamics in a particular social idiom of Balkan transplants to the Germany metropole (care of Cologne) that the audience, especially in America, won't have seen before. But I think it's a stretch to call Sasha in any way a risk, so it gets a low score here, almost by design.
Permalink Home Unreleased ABC Blog E-Mail