A Turkish toll-station worker tries to compensate for his monotonous routine with an overly eager imagination in “Toll Booth,” the accomplished first film of scribe-helmer Tolga Karacelik. Intimate feature is constructed around a pitch-perfect perf from thesp Serkan Ercan, who strikingly brings the diffident protag to life, while ace storytelling and editing ensure auds remain perfectly aware throughout which scenes are but a figment of his mind’s eye. Slightly surreal psychological portrait keeps things impressively light-footed and heartfelt, and should continue to see fests raise their boom barriers.
Impeccably anonymous in his dime-a-dozen shirt and tie, insecure 35-year-old Kenan (Ercan) looks so undistinguished he could pass for someone 10 years younger or older. Colleagues at work refer to him as “Robot” because he seems to lack any personality trait or particular desire; it’s almost a miracle his co-workers notice him at all.
Kenan’s generic looks are matched by his daily occupation: He mans one of the booths at an immense toll station, taking each driver’s ticket and cashing the toll before allowing the car to pass. A series of short, classical closeups effectively suggest the numbingly repetitive nature of the job.
Auds get a peek inside the mind of this cipher when his ailing father (Zafer Diper), who needs looking after at home, rather improbably turns up in his car at Kenan’s tollbooth. Their conversation turns to the beautiful Nurgul (Nergis Ozturk), a friendly young neighbor who looks after the old man, and it quickly becomes clear that what we’re seeing is happening inside Kenan’s head.
Key scene not only illustrates how the frail old man mentally towers over his unconfident son, but also shows how repressed sentiments can have far-reaching consequences in the real world. When a supervisor sees Kenan having his imaginary conversation on the job, he immediately transfers him to a single-booth country-road barrier.
Rather than functioning as a wakeup call, the transfer to a place where nothing happens opens the door to more daydreams. These include not only Kenan’s father, but also his late mother (seen in golden-hued flashbacks), his youth and his still-awkward relationship with the opposite sex, as personified by the sweet Nurgul and a sexy woman (Nur Aysan) whose car breaks down.
Pic beautifully exteriorizes Kenan’s locked-up fears and agonies. Like dreams, these reveries are somewhat surreal and occasionally nonsensical, but at the same time offer direct access to the character’s subconscious. Never a heavy-handed Freudian dissection of Kenan’s personality, pic remains light and even chuckle-inducing while never compromising the characters’ sincere emotions. The dignified strength of Ercan’s perf is especially helpful in this regard, though the cast is strong across the board.
Melancholy score by Cem Adiyaman helps keep things grounded while the balance between real and imagined worlds is maintained with an impeccable eye for clarity. Only slightly subpar tech credit at screening caught was pic’s sound mix.