A tightly knit group of Dutch high-school kids eliminate one of their own in “Dusk,” the tonally problematic sophomore feature of Hanro Smitsman (“Skin”). Loosely inspired by a murder that sent shockwaves through the Netherlands, the awkwardly assembled pic wants to have it both ways, cutting “Elephant”-style between the intersecting stories of the students’ simple everyday routine but also trying to unearth the psychology behind what is essentially an inexplicable — though clearly premeditated — murder. Charismatic lead perfs are something of a redeeming feature and could get pic noticed beyond home turf, where it bows Oct. 14.
The shocking 2003 murder of 16-year-old high schooler Maja Bradaric in the Dutch hinterlands spawned hours of TV discussions, a nonfiction book, a play, a documentary and now this fictional feature. But the screenplay by Anjet Daanje follows only the basic outlines of the Bradaric case, ignoring the background of the real-life victim and two of the three young killers, who all experienced the Yugoslav Wars firsthand before moving to the Netherlands.
Protags here all are freshly scrubbed polder boys and girls — except for Rico (Gerson Oratmangoen), whose complexion suggests his ancestors came from the Dutch colonies. Scheming but ultimately fragile brunette Jessie (Gaite Jansen) is after Rico, even though the ladies’ man is currently dating the always suspicious tough gal Frauk (Melody Klaver, “Winter in Wartime”). Jessie’s best friend is the insecure Ilse (Roos Netjes), the squeeze of the alpha male of the group, Caesar (Matthijs van de Sande Bakhuyzen, “Life in One Day”). Caesar, in turn, is the secret crush of the slightly older Mick (Robert de Hoog, “Skin”), who’s the only student with a car, which is neatly used as a way to place the kids together in cramped close quarters.
Pic’s biggest problem is its structure, which sends mixed signals and feels superimposed and labored. Each teen is introduced in a short, eponymous chapter, with the stories overlapping a la Gus Van Sant’s “Elephant.” The strong suit of the latter film, a clear influence here, was that the pic’s documentary-like attention to apparently meaningless details made the story entirely non-reductive, with the banality of the characters’ lives underlining how incomprehensible — or, at least, not easily explainable — the extreme acts of violence were.
There is some of this in “Dusk’s” early going, but as soon as Smitsman runs out of characters to introduce, he switches to a seemingly random, flash-forward-heavy structure that tries to give some psychological heft to the scapegoat mechanism that serves as an explanation for the gruesome killing — staged in a combo of offscreen and long shot — that will follow.
Though the remaining teens casually blame the victim for things that frustrate or annoy them, there remains a sense that, as in “Elephant,” these characters are viewed from the outside and have zero psychological depth. Mick’s latent attraction to Caesar, for example, is the only defining character trait of the former, essentially reducing him to a closet-case murderer.
It’s because of the strong ensemble work of the actors — who look like high schoolers, though most are experienced thesps – that the pic occasionally becomes more than the sum of its parts. Van de Sande Bakhuyzen, son of late helmer Willem van de Sande Bakhuyzen, especially impresses, and his magnetic screen presence goes some way toward explaining why people would follow him almost blindly.
Craft contributions are solid, with the faded colors of the cinematography nicely complementing the locations used. Slogans on the kids’ T-shirts often provide character insight but are too gimmicky to really work.