A young runaway falls for a street punk and becomes sucked into his drug-laden dream world in “Engel & Joe,” a disappointing sophomore outing by German helmer Vanessa Jopp whose over-familiar story isn’t given much of a fresh spin. Despite gutsy playing by leads Robert Stadlober (who won Best Actor at the Montreal fest) and Jana Pallaske, and an edgy, visually aware look, pic fails to evoke much sympathy for the characters, leaving the viewer a finally frustrated onlooker to two youths’ self-absorbed implosion. Local release, through Prokino in October, may mint some marks but offshore business looms mild.
Jopp made an impressive debut last year with “Forget America,” a nicely observed, “Jules and Jim”-like story of three young people in eastern Germany that mingled many moods and drew fresh, engaging characters. “Engel & Joe” is almost the complete opposite: full-on in its emotions, in-your-face in widescreen (by same d.p., Judith Kaufmann), hard-edged, and with a heavy rock score that triple-underlines what’s already taking place on screen. It’s no surprise that the best moments in the movie are the quieter ones, when the two leads enjoy some silent space together and the camerawork reflects their interludes of calm and caring.
Based on a magazine article by journalist Kai Hermann — one of whose books inspired the similarly themed pic “Christiane F.” — script renames the real-life couple and moves the setting from east Berlin’s Alexanderplatz to the less grungy setting of the square in front of Cologne’s cathedral. Here, 15-year-old Joe (Pallaske), always accompanied by her faithful mutt Rasta, meets street punk Engel (Stadlober), 17, a leather-and-chain clad blond kid.
She’s run away from her depressive, pill-guzzling mother (Sabine Berg); he dreams of escaping to the Tirol mountains and setting up some kind of anarchists’ commune. Almost as an act of rebellion against her middle-class background, Joe sleeps with Engel and joins his world of roaming pedestrian tunnels, hanging out with other streeters and partying at night. Engel’s self-absorption and his possessive ex, Asi (Nadja Bobyleva), causes an eventual split — during which she shags Alex (Mirko Lang) — but when Engel comes out of prison after a brief stint for vagrancy, Joe is there to meet him.
One reason she’s there is because she’s pregnant and Engel, convinced the child is his, turns all fatherly and appears to reform. But as the birth approaches, and finally takes place, Engel’s instability resurfaces, resulting in another spell in the stir. When he comes out and finds Joe settled into motherhood with Alex and her mom, he still thinks he can drag her away to a free life in the mountains.
A young-looking 22, Pallaske, who debuted in the not dissimilar “alaska.de,” is especially good as the middle-class girl torn between rebellion and her roots, and her onscreen chemistry with Stadlober (“Sun Alley,” “Crazy”) is impressive. Try as he may, however, the latter is given little chance by the script to establish Engel as anything more than a boring, self-centered teen, and later scenes of his descent into self-loathing and drugs become tedious.
Tech credits are well-appointed, with Kaufmann’s restless widescreen lensing always involving, even if the characters are not.