Parental irresponsibility gets a huge slap across the face with Edward Berger’s Jack, a Dardennian adolescent drama told in unassuming, unsentimental fashion. The central protagonist, ten-year old boy whose name authoritatively claims the film’s title, discards childish acts and take up the responsibilities of both parents to look after his younger half-brother Manuel. It gets worse when the gallivanting, party-girl mum goes AWOL for days, and both children had to search the streets of Berlin for their mother without access to their own home. And you think yours was a difficult childhood?
Kids, when they’re left to their own devices, is ultra-affecting. When innocence is met with the cruel realities of modern adult life, all we can do is hope that these children survive the harsh times and make it to adulthood safely, and Edward Berger and Nele Mueller-Stöfen’s stark screenplay understands this, putting through these tiny young things into tribulations that would test the mettle of even the most mature of people – prowling in car parks in search for a place to sleep, scraping for food and even going so far as stealing from supermarkets. While it’s all seriously wrenching to watch, it’s also a little thematically unoriginal. There’s a long line of tradition in the coming-of-age films, from the early works of Francois Truffaut’s The 400 Blows, Andrei Tarkovsky’s Ivan’s Childhood right to the more recent ones such as the Dardenne brothers’ The Kid With a Bike, where children are forced to grow up swiftly in order to survive life’s hardships. Jack is a derivation, if not inspired, by the aforementioned gallery of films – especially the Dardennes, whose naturalist aesthetics, formal rigours and even musical cues, highly influenced Berger’s execution.
But the main spotlight is shone on the film’s most compelling performer, Ivo Pietzcker, the Berlin-born child actor who shoulders Jack with some fierce strength and a determined gaze. Berger’s camera barely pulls away from the actor’s face, and the screen is almost always locked in his worldview, his expression ranges from uncommon maturity to poignant stoicism. But just when you thought that Pietzcker is all hardcore emotional tenacity, wait till you see his face break into a frightened turmoil as soon as he realises he has worryingly lost his brother Manuel in a shopping mall, Pietzcker gives it a genuine urgency that will make you explode into tears. This boy has a future in cinema, and Jack is a fine first film that will be remembered for his impressively nuanced and breathtakingly captivating performance.