Seven spirited Romanian urchins take off on an innocent seaside jaunt that offers an increasingly bitter taste of the adult world’s often brutal rules in “Thalassa, Thalassa. Return to the Sea.” Skillfully directed by Bogdan Dumitrescu with a confident, easy flow, the film’s irresistible warmth and charm provide a winning distraction from its skimpiness in the plot department. Limited arthouse dates and upscale family TV slots should follow.
Opening scenes swiftly dish up a succinct dose of the sunny pleasures and collective exuberance of childhood as impoverished tyke Fane introduces his equally scruffy chums to a dream discovery: a hidden luxury Jaguar convertible. Group promptly takes off for a spin across the barren countryside, with Fane barely able to see over the steering wheel.
Feel-good moments abound in the early reels, many of them coming via group underdog Sisi, a delightful, bucktoothed kid, slightly younger than the rest but determined not to comply with their efforts to exclude him. Denied access to the car, he stows away in the trunk, later emerging with vaguely suspicious loot including a gun, with which he bargains for a place in the group.
A tattered billboard indicating the beach 42 kilometers away sparks an automatic decision to proceed. Fact that none of them has ever been there is perhaps the most direct acknowledgment of the kids’ underprivileged upbringing.
The journey’s rhythms are adroitly modulated, with the children’s breezy camaraderie gradually morphing into ruthless jockeying for power. Film’s only mechanical transition is the boys’ battle for proximity to their one female companion; script’s treatment of the character and her increasingly manipulative coquetry also feels more than a little questionable. Much darker and less contrived is the disappearance of two of the kids, and the unconcerned, self-centered reaction of the group’s remaining members.
Aside from a brief glimpse of a schoolmaster early on, adults are never seen, instead figuring offscreen as a vague menace to the kids’ plans. Dumitrescu succeeds in adopting a child’s-eye view with only minor lapses into cutesiness.
He is greatly aided by the inexperienced cast of natural, spontaneous performers, all plucked from schools and planted in front of cameras for the first time. They create seven quite distinct characters, and much of their experience, especially the wonderment that overcomes them upon finally seeing the sea, is genuinely contagious.
Doru Mitran’s clean, radiant lensing is a plus, as is Adrian Enescu’s music, which mixes ebullient Central European folksy tunes with more sober Western sounds.