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BERLIN 2018 Generation

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Review: Cobain


- BERLIN 2018: Nanouk Leopold's new film is another subtle exploration of a family situation, except this time, the roles of parent and child are reversed

Review: Cobain
Bas Keizer and Naomi Velissariou in Cobain

Dutch filmmaker Nanouk Leopold is a Berlinale regular: she has been present at the festival with four films, most recently when It's All So Quiet [+see also:
film review
film focus
interview: Nanouk Leopold
film profile
premiered in Panorama in 2013. Her new film, Cobain [+see also:
interview: Nanouk Leopold
film profile
, written by Stienette Bosklopper, is now showing in Generation 14plus, and like her earlier films, it deals with a family. But in this case, it is a family so broken that it is hard for its members to even get to see each other.

The titular character is a 15-year-old boy, and if you are wondering about his name, all you have to do is look at his mother. A junkie and former prostitute, Mia (Naomi Velissariou), who is pregnant again when we meet her, probably thought it was cool to name him after Nirvana's tragic frontman. Her son (played by first-timer Bas Keizer) is in the care of social services, and they are trying to find him a new home, which is difficult at his age. 

Despite the fact that she is never there for him – or even for herself, for that matter – Cobain's main concern is to try and help his mum. Spending his childhood in orphanages and foster homes has taught Cobain discipline and responsibility, and he is now a young man with a possible future. This alone sets him apart from other kids with similar backgrounds, and his aspiration to be independent and take care of his mother leads him to land a job with Mia's former pimp, Wickmayer (Wim Opbrouck). He moves in with the sleazy guy and his three prostitutes - one black woman (strangely not credited in the film's press kit) and two Eastern Europeans (Romanian actresses Dana Marineci and Cosmina Stratan) - and helps out with various chores. This is also where he gains his first sexual experiences…

But Mia does not want to be helped, and she is maybe beyond having any real chance. A true heroin addict, she fluctuates between self-loathing and illusory dignity, claiming the doctor has no idea what she is talking about when she warns her that she has to go to methadone therapy because her baby may suffer irreparable damage if she continues using the drug. Cobain tries to play a parent to his mother, and at one point it seems like he might even succeed. 

In her new film, Leopold sticks to her strongest suits: a complex family relationship, rounded characters with very human problems that they decide to solve (or not) through their often complicated temperaments, and a clear and straightforward visual approach with colours creating the atmosphere (here, orange and blue). 

Cobain is a gentle and thoughtful film that deals with some rough subject matter, and bridging the sensibility and topic are top-notch performances, especially by the young Keizer, who infuses Cobain with a completely credible character, while Velissariou, although required to check some "pregnancy" and "addiction" boxes, manages to bring the real person out to the surface through all the misery. In addition, Opbrouck's inspired episode adds edge and puts his character's profession in the right light.

Cobain is a co-production by the Netherlands' Circe Films and The Film Kitchen, Belgium's A Private View, and Germany's Coin Film. Munich-based Beta Cinema has the international rights.

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