Review: Running on Empty
by Marta Bałaga
- BERLINALE 2020: In her Panorama-screened documentary, Lisa Weber brings back the couch potato
Having just checked off its world premiere in the 70th Berlinale’s Panorama, Lisa Weber’s Running on Empty [+see also:
interview: Lisa Weber
film profile] seemingly borrows its English title from Sidney Lumet’s 1988 River Phoenix-starrer about a family of fugitives, perpetually on the run. It’s perhaps a bit ironic, as this time around, people barely move.
Over the course of 80 or so minutes – and after following them for more than three years – Weber shows a directionless family in Vienna, living off welfare, whose entire existence revolves around a sofa. Be it teen mum Claudia, now entering her twenties, or her glued-to-the-chair mother or brother, barely able to look away from the TV screen or up from their phones – even for a brief moment. It all has a bit of a dystopian vibe in its extremity, with something as bonkers as Ready Player One springing to mind, mostly thanks to its rather depressing picture of humanity escaping its sombre surroundings through the tantalising visions offered by virtual-reality software. But Weber, who sometimes doesn’t care about hiding her presence, has no doubts – this is the world we live in, now, and the family she chose to observe is not alone in their ways.
It’s an exhausting watch, frankly, with the characters sleeping their days away, as they have nowhere to go and nothing to do. Occasionally, they discuss politics and question, say, Muslims’ Christmas bonus, as “they don’t want Christmas”, yet they still never let go of their phones. There is a sense of resignation hanging over the whole thing that makes it harder to breathe sometimes, almost as if these cramped apartments haven’t been properly aired for weeks. Which may very well be the case, as even with that thick cloud of cigarette smoke hanging in the air, the mere prospect of going out, even to celebrate a birthday in a restaurant, becomes an impossible task. So does everything else, for that matter, with the “don’t bother, they won’t hire you” refrain accompanying their unenthusiastic scroll through job applications. No diploma, no salary, goes the equation, and no energy to get up in the morning, for sure.
Arguably, it’s this utter lack of development – including emotional – that’s bound to seriously limit the appeal of Weber’s somewhat hollow-eyed film. With even its tiniest member already used to falling asleep in front of the TV, it doesn’t seem like she has any illusions left about what the future might bring for this household, which is still able to take a good family photo, if needed, but which has already given up on pretty much everything, and a long time ago, at that. Except for, strangely, Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston’s bombastic ballad “When You Believe”, chosen to play over the kind of reality that has nothing to do with knowing “what miracles you can achieve, when you believe”, and which for the most part just offers fish fingers. Or spaghetti.
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