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GALWAY 2019

Review: Smile

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- Steffen Köhn's debut feature is an ambitious project in theory, but the final result is a chaotic potpourri full of clichés

Review: Smile
Mercedes Müller in Smile

The 31st Galway Film Fleadh has hosted the international premiere of Smile [+see also:
trailer
film profile
]
, directed by Steffen Köhn and written by the helmer himself in tandem with Silke Eggert, screened as part of the international feature competition.

Before directing this feature, Köhn worked on several shorts, experimental video-art pieces and installations. In the movie, we follow 19-year-old Mercedes (Mercedes Müller), who quits her customer-service job – where, apparently, she is tasked with scamming people over the phone – on her second day and hopes soon to meet Boy (Mehmet Sözer), a DJ she has been chatting to on Facebook. Mercedes asks her fitness-obsessed mother to lend her some money so that she can attend the legendary Heimat electronic music festival, as Boy will also be there. Her mother refuses to sponsor her trip, but the girl manages to steal the money she needs and to attend the event.

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After this short introduction, which is somewhat detached from the rest of the narrative, the viewer accompanies Mercedes on an endless journey to find “something she belongs to” while “fighting for herself and for her identity”, as repeatedly stated via a voice-over delivered by an unknown female character, accompanied by euphoric images of constellations and celestial bodies. Throughout the film, we will see her dancing frenetically, being surrounded by groups of weirdoes, meeting an irritating drug-addled party girl named Bella (Hanna Hilsdorf) and attending a casting session out of the blue (where girls are required to be topless and mimic terrorists while being photographed) in order to win a precious golden wristband. Strangely enough, in this world, these wristbands also serve as credit cards. Mercedes loses the contest but is somehow still able to get the golden band, which finally allows her to attend the prestigious secret backstage party where Boy is playing and where the two are supposed to meet. From time to time prior to this, Mercedes and Boy make video calls to each other, but the man does nothing to help her get said wristband.

Sadly, every development in the plot is highly predictable. A number of visual and narrative solutions hint at different film and TV genres (too many, in fact). As it stands, this flick is a tasteless hodgepodge of sci-fi, thriller, horror, teen drama, surreal comedy and a few episodes of Charlie Brooker's Black Mirror.

Vague and chaotic are probably the words that best describe this film. Theoretically, Mercedes’ hallucinatory experience should start as soon as a slimy festival employee offers her a “happy pill”, but in practice, the atmosphere and the characters' absurdity are present both before and after this encounter, leaving the viewer groping in the dark and constantly wondering, “Why all of this?” And the icing on the cake is that the final scene is not rewarding in the slightest in this respect.

The film is an interminable, shambolic journey, perhaps a victim of its own overambitious intentions. It would surely have benefited from clearer aesthetic and narrative choices, and this is a pity, as at times the imagery is arresting, but the final result is a freewheeling collage of bizarre, unoriginal situations and characters.

Smile was produced by René Frotscher (Summer Solstice [+see also:
trailer
film profile
]
, Combat Girls [+see also:
trailer
interview: Jella Haase
film profile
]
) for ZDF's Das Kleine Fernsehspiel in co-operation with Deutsche Film- und Fernsehakademie Berlin and Mafilm Martens Film- und Fernsehproduktions. Eye on Films is currently handling its world sales.

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