An 18-year-old about to be released from a juvenile detention center is pushed over the limit when his deadbeat mom reappears in Florin Serban’s strong debut, “If I Want to Whistle, I Whistle.” Though it loses its way in the final 20 minutes, the drama largely reps a lean, subtle take on the young-man-in-prison genre, boasting an especially powerful visiting-room sequence and impressive thesping skills from the largely nonpro cast. “Whistle” is the kind of solid, engrossing, small-scale pic fest auds should appreciate, offering possibilities for a limited arthouse run.
Producer/co-writer Catalin Mitulescu was the helmer on “The Way I Spent the End of the World,” penned by Andreea Valean, whose play forms the basis for “Whistle.” The resulting script successfully avoids the stagebound feel by expanding outdoor scenes and crafting dialogue-free moments that establish mood and tone. It’s especially good at capturing the tensions within the detention center, making fresh the kind of jockeying for power that’s so often overdone in more expansive jailbird dramas.
Silviu (George Pistereanu) is getting out of juvenile detention after four years inside for unspecified infractions. Since he’s not top man on the totem pole, he’s subject to the power-brokering of more hardened inmates. Younger brother Marius (Marian Bratu) makes an unexpected visit, announcing that their mom (Clara Voda) has returned from Italy and wants to take him back with her before Silviu gets out; big brother is not pleased.
With release imminent, Silviu participates in a program to reintegrate into society, taking a shine to young trainee social worker Ana (Ada Condeescu). While it’s a small scene, their interaction and his flirtatiousness offer a promising sense for his future — one that’s squashed when his mother arrives with Marius. In an expertly built-up showdown, Silviu lays bare her lousy maternal behavior, threatening violence should she dare take Marius. With just five days to go before release, he tries to get the warden (Mihai Constantin) to agree to a day pass, but when it’s refused, Silviu explodes.
A little tightening of the last scenes would have kept things even more tense, and the near-final sequence, meant to jar with its unexpected tranquillity, doesn’t feel thought out. However, until that point, Serban and Mitulescu keep the drama admirably trim, allowing character and dialogue just enough space to capture the conflicting elements that cause hope to lead to panic.
First-timer Pistereanu acquits himself with seasoned professionalism, keeping emotions dampened down and brooding rather than going for showier explosions. Even when behaving stupidly, he maintains a sympathy that largely accepts his behavior without condoning his actions. Fellow inmates were cast using juvenile offenders who blend in seamlessly; in smaller parts, Condeescu hints at flashes of personality while Voda’s thoughtless mother captures the vulnerability of selfishness.
D.p. Marius Panduru has lensed many of the new crop of Romanian pics, and his work here, with subtle use of a handheld camera, provides the right amount of realist flavor. That said, he and Serban need to think twice about yet more shots of the back of their protag’s head — the device has become pointlessly overused in recent years and now requires a very good reason for being inserted again. Lighting is nicely modulated, especially in indoor evening sequences.