A mentally challenged punk band is the unusual subject of the unusually thoughtful "The Punk Syndrome."

A mentally challenged punk band is the unusual subject of the unusually thoughtful “The Punk Syndrome.” Focusing on the handicapped head-bangers who make up the Finnish band Pertti Kurikka’s Name Day, this thin-ice-treading docu opens a window onto alternative culture, human nature and the very narrow line between so-called normal people and those on the fringe. Proper marketing could take Jukka Karkkainen and J-P Passi’s funny, edgy and very human feature into cult-hit territory, although the subject and subtitles will provide built-in limitations for this low-budget, rock-fueled verite movie.

The band’s chief songwriter, guitarist and namesake, Kurikka, is a sensitive obsessive who has a fixation with seams (as in clothing). He’s also a grizzled rocker who weeps easily and pours his heart, soul and problems into his lyrics (“Pertti has a speech defect/He can’t throw a disco party/Pertti has cerebral palsy/He can’t throw a disco party”). His bandmates make up one of the strangest punk groups in Finland, or anywhere. Drummer Toni Valitalo and bassist Sami Helle have Down syndrome; vocalist Kari Aalto is also mentally disabled and has ferocious rage issues, most of them directed at Helle, a politically conservative NGO activist who in one sequence puts a good-looking Finnish pol on the spot (she acquits herself gracefully).

That particular scene points up the unpredictability of the band members, but also the unfounded assumptions people make about them. Karkkainen and Passi’s accomplishment is to show how little distance actually exists between their subjects and those who are ostensibly well-adjusted. The oddness of the musicians, which might easily have steered the movie into mockery, is rooted mostly in their brutal honesty: Kurikka, Helle, Valitalo and Aalto basically say what they think and feel with a great deal more liberty than most people do. This may make others uncomfortable, but it also makes for sympathetic, if volatile, docu subjects.

The bluntness of the exchanges is often quite funny, as are the song lyrics (“I don’t want to live in a group home/I don’t want to live in an institution/I want to live in Kallio/In the privacy of a bomb shelter”). And the band is quite adept; live auds attending various gigs seem to start out expecting a freak show, but are soon seduced by — and dancing to — the band’s adept playing (punk rock being by definition rudimentary). Pertti Kurikka’s Name Day actually takes the bluntness and vulgarity of punk one step further, and gets away with it.

The filmmakers don’t delve too much into the backgrounds of their less-than-fab four, although the portraiture is effective and poignant: Valitalo’s disappointment in love (the girl he likes loves someone else) is heartbreaking. When Kurikka salutes the expectant fatherhood of the band’s steadfast manager, Kalle Pajamaa, and notes that people offer congratulations on the birth of a healthy child, one understands that few congratulations were offered at the birth of Kurikka or his comrades.

Tech credits are, like the band’s music, intentionally raggedy.

The Punk Syndrome

Finland

Production

A Mouka Films presentation. Produced by Sami Jahnukainen, Carsten Aanonsen, Lennart Strom, Magnus Gertten, Joakim Strand. Executive producer, Jahnukainen. Directed by Jukka Karkkainen, J-P Passi. Written by Karkkainen, Passi, Sami Jahnukainen.

Crew

Camera (color), Passi; editor, Riitta Poikselka; music, Pertti Kurikka, Kari Aalto, Sami Helle, Toni Valitalo; sound, Jorgen Bergsund, Tormod Ringnes, Antti Haikonen. Reviewed at Hot Docs Film Festival, Toronto, May 3, 2012. Running time: 85 MIN.

With

Pertti Kurikka, Kari Aalto, Sami Helle, Toni Valitalo, Kalle Pajamaa.

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