Review: ‘The Burning Snail’

Actor Thomas Stiller's first feature as writer-director is a well-observed, eventually chilling portrait of an unhappy adolescent. Pic's modest ambitions preclude much theatrical life, with fest and Eurotube slots most apt. Fourteen-year-old Peter (Max Haas) is failing at school, and home life is also wanting --- his youngish, attractive single mother, Sarah (Barbara Auer), means well but lacks the instinct or interest to be an involved parent. Frustrated, with a well of anger waiting to be tapped, the friendless teen is drawn toward a group of four particularly noxious male classmates led by budding sadist Axel (Tobias Nath). They put him through a series of cruel "tests" toward membership, from beating up a fellow student to killing small animals.

This self-destructive quest for acceptance is further fueled by events at home. Mom and her new boyfriend thoughtlessly announce that a planned mother-son vacation will now be taken by the romantic couple alone, with Peter farmed out to Grandma’s. Lingering fallout from this betrayal, combined with an ugly last “test,” drive protag to take the group’s petty cruelties onto a horrific new plane.

This final sequence could have turned excessively melodramatic, but Stiller’s understatement throughout renders it convincing (though too abrupt as an ending —some sort of coda seems called for). Likewise, writer-helmer manages to avoid stock alienated-youth postures or simplistic blame-the-parents undercurrents. It becomes clear Peter is heading for a wrecked, probably incarcerated adulthood, if he makes it that far. But pic doesn’t present him as any “typical” victim of dysfunction; view is sympathetic without recourse to sentimentality or sensationalism.

Perfs from both young and adult thesps are very good, lensing and other production contributions polished within a willfully somber, muted overall tone.

The Burning Snail

German

Production

A Jost Hering Filmproduktion. Produced, directed, written by Thomas Stiller.

Crew

Camera (color), Frank Griebe; editor, Peter Markovic; music, Stefan Rager, Lars v. Mars; costumes, Anna Tykwer, Inga Franke; sound, Ulla Kosterke. Reviewed on videocassette, San Francisco, Jan. 12, 1997. (In Cinequest, San Jose Film Festival.) Running time: 82 MIN.

With

Peter Max Haas Sarah Barbara Auer Gerd Sebastian Koch Axel Tobias Nath Detlev Jonas Kipp Matthias Michael Huml Christian Wasja Stettner
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