The last part of a decade-in-the-making trilogy, “Position Among the Stars” reps an affectionate send-off for the series’ subjects, the Sjamsuddin family, a working-class clan living in Indonesia. As with his previous pics about the brood, Dutch-Indonesian helmer Leonard Retel Helmrich deploys an expressionistic, quasi-soap-opera approach to produce striking results, thanks especially to use of Steadicam. But the protagonists seem to be playing to the cameras more this time round, making “Stars” a less charming effort than earlier installments. Winner of the top prize at IDFA, pic should find a position in the fest circuit’s firmament.
Bachtiar “Bakti” Becker and his mother, Rumidjah Sjamsuddin, have been front-and-center stars of the trilogy since the first film, “The Eye of the Day” (2001), which observed them coping with the period of national unrest following the departure of President Suharto. In “Shape of the Moon” (2004), Bakti’s then-young niece Theresia “Tari” Untari emerged as a major figure, while her formidable grandma, Rumidjah, retired to her rural village at the end of the pic.
After a brief recap using footage from its predecessors, “Stars” catches up with Rumidjah, struggling to survive in the near-deserted village. Bakti persuades her to come back to Jakarta to help look after Tari, now on the cusp of leaving high school.
Rumidjah fervently hopes Tari will be the first in the family to attend college, but the smart, pretty teen is an underachiever and proud of it. Meanwhile, Bakti has found a new status in the role of neighborhood manager (sort of like a very localized mayor), but still has a shiftless streak; he’s become obsessed with raising Siamese fighting fish for gambling purposes, much to the chagrin of his new wife, Sriwyati, who runs a small food stall. One of pic’s dramatic high points, funny and then suddenly rather dark, comes when Sriwyati fries all of Bakti’s fish as retaliation when he uses up her supply of holy water for the fishbowls.
Animals feature heavily throughout, as Retel Helmrich and co-lenser Ismail Fahmi Lubish intersperse footage of the human subjects with tracking shots following rats and cockroaches in their slumland residence. The point seems not to be to highlight the unhygienic living conditions (compared to some neighbors, the Sjamsuddins are pretty house-proud), but to show how all creatures great and small live side-by-side here.
That said, Retel Helmrich doesn’t try to make the family into noble savages of any kind; they’re presented as essentially struggling, flawed but likable ordinary folk. However, they seem more self-conscious in this installment, as if they’re projecting characters for the camera rather than just being themselves. It’s impossible not to wonder how much being in the trilogy has shaped their lives, not least in an economic sense.
Editing could be tightened, although it’s hard to say where, given that the long shots are essential to the pic’s aesthetic. A few interludes, such as a scene in which toddler Bagus Nur Alam runs through the streets like an urchin out of “Slumdog Millionaire,” feel stylish but gratuitous. Tech credits are acceptable for a fest film, but pic may look too low-budget to work as a release outside the Netherlands.