An overstretched drama from sophomore helmer Catalin Mitulescu that tries for insight but fails to seduce.

A young man making a living by recruiting girls for prostitution nearly drops his callous exterior in “Loverboy,” an overstretched drama from sophomore helmer Catalin Mitulescu that tries for insight but fails to seduce. Despite the appealing presence of thesp Ada Condeescu and a couple of scenes that jolt the pic into a more deeply felt vein, there’s a coldness of lensing as well as character that simply can’t transcend cliches. Well-made without standing out, “Loverboy” will get only a mild rise out of fests.

Mitulescu (“The Way I Spent the End of the World”) reassembled cast and d.p. from last year’s “If I Want to Whistle, I Whistle,” which he co-wrote and produced. The re-teaming works well, though thesp George Pistereanu, as Luca, remains largely impenetrable, whether wearing sunglasses or not; presumably that’s the point, but it’s difficult to hang a movie on someone who basically feels nothing. Cops know Luca is a “loverboy,” a cute-faced parasite who gets young women to fall in love with him before selling them into the white slave trade.

With little to do in their one-horse town on the Danube, it’s fairly easy for these guys with their fancy cars and the promise of excitement to seduce bored girls. Add to that the generational conflict between traditional families, and youngsters wanting to party like they see on TV and the Internet, and it’s easy to understand how they can be sucked in by cool dudes promising love. Veli (Condeescu) is an ideal candidate: thoughtful if not exactly smart, with a stern father (Remus Marginean) who tries to keep her on a short leash, she’s easy prey for Luca’s charms.

The scene where Luca deflowers Veli is unquestionably the film’s strongest, with the camera remaining fixed at a disturbing mid-distance as what begins as a rape turns into mutual desire. Mitulescu tries to humanize Luca by having him look after a sick grandfather (Ion Besoiu) — a stereotype that adds little — and hinting at the loverboy’s softening toward Veli. Ultimately, they’re only hints, and the character barely registers despite occupying the majority of screentime. Clara Voda, as a cafe manager and Luca’s neighbor, provides some atmosphere, but feels only half thought-out.

Mitulescu captures the limbo state of summer in the middle of nowhere, a time when heat-induced languor and the lure of excitement form a heady combination. What’s less well-conveyed is a sense of why these young people make the choices they do — not spur-of-the-moment foolishness, but more lasting decisions of troubling masochism. Fortunately Condeescu has an engaging screen presence, with the ability to hold interest even when the script isn’t giving her much support.

Visuals are attractively enhanced by natural light, conveying the empty, almost agoraphobic flatness of the region. Marius Panduru’s observational camera is especially good at giving a palpable sense of the locales, particularly Luca’s dilapidated roadside hangout.

Loverboy

Romania-Sweden-Serbia

Production

A Strada Films presentation of a Strada Film, Film i Vast, the Chimney Pot, Cinelabs Belgrad production. (International sales: Celluloid Dreams, Paris.) Produced by Daniel Mitulescu, Catalin Mitulescu, Marcian Lazar. Executive producer, Florentina Onea. Co-producers, Fredrik Zander, Tomas Eskilsson. Directed by Catalin Mitulescu. Screenplay, Mitulescu, Bianca Oana, Bogdan Mustata.

Crew

Camera (color), Marius Panduru; editors, Cristiana Ionescu, Stefan Ioan Tatu; music, Pablo Malaurie Cabanillas; production designer, Daniel Raduta; costume designers, Augustina Stanciu, Chinyere Eze; sound (Dolby Digital), Thomas Huhn, Florin Tabacaru, Marius Lefterache, Alexandru Dragomir; casting, Emil Slotea. Reviewed at Cannes Film Festival (Un certain regard), May 18, 2011. Running time: 96 MIN.

With

George Pistereanu, Ada Condeescu, Ion Besoiu, Clara Voda, Bogdan Dumitrache, Coca Bloos, Remus Marginean, Alexandru Mititelu, Adina Galupa, Adrian Moroianu, Matei Onea, Andrei Runcanu, Veronica Neculai. (Romanian dialogue)

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