Review: ‘Ghettokids’

German urban juveniles-at-risk tale "Ghettokids" sports an air of truth, even if Christian Wagner's ("Transatlantis") direction may not quite be distinctive enough nor Gabriela Sperl's script quite fresh enough to follow "La Heine" and other, like-themed recent Europics to wider offshore distribution.

German urban juveniles-at-risk tale “Ghettokids” sports an air of truth, even if Christian Wagner’s (“Transatlantis”) direction may not quite be distinctive enough nor Gabriela Sperl’s script quite fresh enough to follow “La Heine” and other, like-themed recent Europics to wider offshore distribution. Despite fictive tale’s grounding in an actual self-help program for underprivileged Munich kids, pic’s overemphasis on a couple of stock well-meaning adults tips scales from true grit toward “To Sir With Love”-style advocacy melodrama. Still, it’s engrossing and well-crafted, with international tube/tape sales likely to be strong.

The real-life Ghettokids Club was founded five years ago to encourage a local populace of largely immigrant first-generation and economically disadvantaged students to mentor one another after school through various activities. Here, middle-aged social worker Xaver (Gunther Maria Halmer) runs a clubhouse primarily centered on breakdancing and rapping. Participation is dependent on good behavior — onsite, in school and elsewhere.

Using this haven as a second home are teenaged brothers Maikis (Toni Osmani) and Christos (Ioannis Tsialas). But they’re constantly getting into trouble. Former is trying to clean up his act — particularly since he’s about to cross the serious criminal-punishment line of 18 — while getting no help from his barely adolescent brother, for whose petty thieving and other misdeeds he’s forever covering.

At school, they’re both dumped into a remedial class that’s driven away one instructor after another. Just a few minutes in this hostile, chaotic environment is enough to make new teacher Hanna (Barbara Rudnik) bolt. Just returned home as a divorcee from several years in Greece with her own two school-age children in tow, she decides that a gig at a “normal,” more middle-class institution is as much as she can handle.

Xaver — conveniently a friend of Hanna’s mother — scorns that decision. And conniving if not yet irredeemable Christos — whom Hannah recognizes as the train station thief who stole her pocketbook — adds his plea, since the beleaguered principal will readmit the expelled Maikis if little bro can get teacher back on the “impossible” job. After some crash-coursing at Xaver’s clubhouse, she’s ready to try again with some new tricks and a toughened attitude.

That’s just a modest boost for the brothers, however, who have other things to worry about. Their brewery-slaving Turkish-Greek mother (Neza Selbuz) goes off on a much-needed trip to visit relatives in Greece, leaving the lads to share their one-room with surly, hard-hitting eldest sibling (Mehdi Moinzadeh). They’d rather stay out all night at the train station, where bad habits die hard.

Nonpro juvie thesps hold their own opposite old hands Rudnik and Halmer, benefiting from situations and dialogue that are less predictable than the grownups are saddled with. Ethnic/class isolation and prejudice (ironically underlined when Hanna’s son is roughed up by classmates for his Greek surname) are credibly depicted, sans excess pathos.

While suspense develops only quite late, characters are well drawn enough to engage empathy. One misstep here is the decision not to subtitle-translate non-German speech — since most of the principals (including Hanna and her kids) understand it, why should viewers be left out?

Polished, nicely paced production could have used a more dynamic, less conventional visual presentation, but is otherwise well-tooled on all levels.

Ghettokids

Germany-France

Production

A TV60 Film production in association with Bayerischer Rundfunk and Arte. Produced by Bernd Burgemeister. Executive producers, Dieter Graber, Harald Wigankow. Directed by Christian Wagner. Screenplay, Gabriela Sperl.

Crew

Camera (color), Jurgen Jurges; editor, Patricia Rommel; music, Fabian Romer; art director, Su Proebster; costume designer, Nicole Schlier; sound designer (Dolby), Rudi Preusser; assistant director, Doris Wedemeier; casting, Lore Blossl, Heike Ulriche. Reviewed at Montreal World Film Festival (World Cinema: Reflections of Our Time), Aug. 29, 2002. Running time: 90 MIN.

With

Ioannis Tsialas, Toni Osmani, Barbara Rudnik, Gunther Maria Halmer, Renate Becker, Julia Dietze, Marian Losch, Neza Selbuz, Mehdi Moinzadeh, Fatih Sahanoglu, Onur Balta, Xhafer Berisha, Besnik Osmani, Rassim Sefer Oglou, Lenci Berger, Alexander Adler, Michael Tregor, Hans Fleischmann.
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