That it sometimes takes one death to accept another is the message of “Kauwboy,” an unpretentious kidpic that balances sweet and sour in just the right doses. Helmer Boudewijn Koole’s previous experience with child-focused docus stands him in good stead with his first feature, about a 10-year-old with an absent mom, a volatile dad and a baby bird as a new friend. Don’t expect any narrative revelations, just good storytelling and a fine central perf from tot Rick Lens. A Berlin win for first feature and the Kplus award guarantee Euro play, and re-confirm the Dutch strength with children’s pics.
Jojo (Lens) is a latchkey kid roaming the fields of his neighborhood with the careening energy of a reluctant loner. When he finds a baby jackdaw on the ground, he takes the bird home knowing he’ll have to hide it from dad Ronald (Loek Peters), who’s against keeping pets.
Though Jojo seems to be speaking on the phone to his mom, a country singer, adult auds will clue in early on that she’s not really touring in the States. Dad, a car-tinkering, beer-swilling security guard with little filial interest, is nursing a major depression and barely communicates except to scold. The jackdaw (“kauw” is Dutch for jackdaw) becomes Jojo’s one friend apart from Yenthe (Susan Radder), a cool girl on his water polo team, but it’s increasingly difficult to keep the bird a secret from his father, and Jojo’s attempts to celebrate his absent mom’s birthday meet with fierce resistance.
Koole keeps things in focus — the script withholds any hint of relatives or family friends — and the best scenes are unquestionably those of Jojo alone with the bird. The creativity of a child’s imagination is on full show, and the collaboration between helmer and young star brings to the fore the troubled child’s unstable balancing act between what’s truly real and what he wants to be real. Toward the end, there’s an unexpected moment of cruelty that’s jolting precisely because Koole has done such a fine job instilling a sense of uplift in the preceding scene; some may question its necessity, though its inclusion leads to Jojo’s acceptance of fate.
D.p. Daniel Bouquet (“Nothing Personal,” “Hemel”) is making a name for himself as one of Holland’s leading lensers, and here his slightly bleached summer colors and judicious use of handheld shots help establish the sense of time and place in which a 10-year-old engages with nature, both existentially and internally. Songs are catchy and nicely mixed in to assist with the story.