A chronic skin condition is the last thing a teenager needs, but add family problems and the angst is just beginning in “Neanderthal.” Set in the homonymous German valley where the prehistoric humanoid was discovered, pic starts well but swings its club in so many directions that initial interest would be lost if not for the fine young star at the center. Carefully scripted by co-helmer Ingo Haeb, but uncertain where to focus attention, pic has kicked around the fest circuit for most of 2007, dimming hopes for any future beyond rental.
Guido (Jacob Matschenz) “just wants to be a regular Neanderthal,” but the neurodermatitis he’s suffered since childhood makes him stick out like a chafed, and very sore, thumb. A slacker at school who spends off-hours drinking with his buddies, the frightened Guido cleans up his act after his condition significantly worsens and he’s rushed to the hospital.
Once back home, he starts hanging out at the post-student digs of his under-achieving brother Martin (Tim Egloff) and, in particular, abrasive bad apple Rudi (Andreas Schmidt). When Guido catches his dad (Falk Rockstroh) with the neighbor’s wife (Eva Mannschott), he channels his confusion and anger by falling increasingly in thrall to Rudi and his loutish behavior.
Miraculously Guido’s skin condition clears, allowing him to score with g.f. Katrin (Luana Bellinghausen). But just because he finally looks like a regular Neanderthal doesn’t mean he’s learned to sort out the conflicting emotions regarding his critical, cold father and wounded but maddeningly even-tempered mother (Johanna Gastdorf).
Pic is set just after the Wall came down, and Haeb, born in 1970, bases the story on his own teen years. However, period is beside the point — at least for non-German viewers — though the amorphous script makes it difficult to know exactly which points helmers wished to make.
Like most coming-of-age tales, “Neanderthal” wallows in the maelstrom of late-teen confusion and identity. But there’s little drive and less focus as too much is thrown into the mix.
Biggest problem is the character of Rudi, who exerts an overwhelming influence on both Guido and the film but never integrates into the whole. More could be made of Guido’s relationship with his mother, presumably one of the core reasons for his anger: Just one more scene could have resolved the dangling threads.
Still, despite pic’s problems, young thesp Matschenz holds it together. Alternately intense and self-consciously uncontrolled, he brings a painful believability to Guido’s turmoil: He is definitely a star on the rise. Transfer from HD is flawless, and tech package is pro.