A breathtakingly assured first feature from Czech cameraman Martin Duba, “The Farm Keeper” is a delicate and immensely likable story of a rural Czech family energized by the arrival of a cryptic yet benevolent young stranger. The kind of dramatically rich and completely sincere family film that auds clamor for but studios seem either reluctant or unable to make, pic should ride strong word-of-mouth to success on large and small screens.
On a modest horse farm a good drive from Prague, Mrs. Kubova (Jarmila Dubova) frets over money while coordinating the daily regimen of her sons, Petr and Jiri (Petr and Jiri Duba), plus the farm’s perpetually cross trainer, Lucka (Lucie Vendlova), and the young woman who manages the complex’s modest pub, Marie (Anna Vesela). Mrs. Kubova’s husband, Kuba (helmer Duba), shows up occasionally from Prague, where he is in business “selling pianos or something,” says one of the boys.
They are all set in their ways, but their routine begins to change with the arrival of Frantisek (Adam Stivin), an earnest young man who almost begs to be given a job. His refusal to take a salary startles the adults, but he cements their friendship by fooling the local louts at the pub with the oldest card trick in the book.
There isn’t a problem Frantisek can’t solve or a machine he can’t fix. He builds a primitive t-ball stand so the boys don’t lose their lone baseball in the tall grass, repairs an old moped and begins a guileless flirtation with the obviously smitten Marie. When Kuba abruptly announces the horses and farm must be sold, Frantisek figures out an unexpected way to generate revenue and save the family farm.
Beneath pic’s placid surface, Duba employs a structure that subtly enriches the slice-of-life narrative. Bad things do happen to these good people — spills from scooters and horses, the death of the family dog — but they all happen off-screen, suggesting that there’s a higher power determined to minimize life’s unpleasant surprises.
Duba as d.p. has fun with the unexpected — mischievously editing a session at the local watering hole, amusingly charting the rut of daily chores and bookending the film with Stivin’s abrupt, almost magical, arrival and departure. The mystical aura is further explored by a subplot involving the supernatural powers of the meadow in which Frantisek pitches his tent.
Duba has enlisted his family and friends in the lead roles. Results are utterly natural, with the boys giving focused performances as inquisitive and often bored boys. Vendlova manages to deftly balance Lucka’s crossness with an ultimately touching vulnerability, and Vesela’s Marie is both sweetly innocent and palpably sexy. Only Mrs. Kubova’s character seems a tad underwritten.
Crucial to pic’s tone is Stivin, discovered by Duba at a musicvid shoot. The young actor’s affable presence as Frantisek never hints Frantisek’s motives are anything but pure and honorable.
Tech credits are pro, remarkable considering pic was shot in two one-month stints in 2001 and 2003 and soaked up most of Duba’s savings. Ondrej Trojan, who produces Jan Hrebejk’s films under the Total HelpArt banner and directed last year’s Czech foreign film Oscar nominee “Zelary,” and his wife, Barbora Trojanova, play the couple to whom Kuba almost sells the farm.