The long, proud tradition of older generations misconstruing, despairing of and generally not understanding their younger counterparts thrives in the present age — which is what makes German director Julia Langhof’s feature debut, (for which she and co-writer Thomas Gerhold deservedly picked up the screenplay award at the Munich Film Festival) feel so refreshing. While the filmmaker herself is in her mid-30s and brings a certain maturity to bear on her observations about the pressures of coming-of-age, her film also speaks the millennial language of social media in a natural vernacular that makes “Lomo — The Language of Many Others” (a cumbersome title that belies an engagingly dextrous film) a growing-up story that’s both timely and timeless. The trappings may have changed irrevocably, after all, but the hormonal confusion and disaffection of that period in life remain the same. In short: teenagers gonna teenage; it’s just that now they can post a series of selfies while doing it.
The teenager in question is Karl (the high-cheekboned, floppy-haired Jonas Dassler, showing strong heartthrob potential). The son of wealthy upper-middle parents, Karl finds rebellion in his blog, titled “The Language of Many Others,” on which he posts, for a large and chatty community of followers, the more or less incendiary videos he shoots and edits — sometimes without participants’ knowledge. His beloved twin sister Anna (Eva Nürnberg) is on track to go to college in Canada, but Karl’s affluenza manifests in a kind of paralysis about his future, and instead of applying himself, he falls for a similarly disaffected-seeming new classmate, Doro (Lucie Hollmann).
Doro’s mother happens to be a powerful local politician on whose recommendation Karl’s father is relying for a large contract, and so when their nascent relationship turns sour and Karl spitefully slut-shames Doro by posting a sex tape of theirs on his blog, the ramifications are far-ranging. Complicating things further is the increasingly voracious voyeurism of his online following. This faceless, anonymous cacophony of voices — some malicious, some supportive — want ever more prurient and participatory access to Karl’s life, and he encourages them at times by becoming their literal puppet: closing his eyes and letting their instructions guide him across busy streets and even through an al fresco dinner with complete strangers (who are too mired in stiff bourgeois politeness to question his presence).
Just as impressive as the twisty, engrossing narrative and the committed performances, is the fact that Langhof has hit on a dynamic, layered aesthetic that combines the multiple-sensory input of social media (video, audio, emoji, text) with more traditional scene-making. And yet the images, shot in a rich, saturated palette, feel neither chaotic (except when explicitly meant to signal overload) nor stultifyingly literal. Many a more experienced filmmaker would be wise to take note that there are other ways to shoot a text-based conversation than by cutting to closeups of keyboards, screens and blinking cursors.
The film’s privileged, white, elite Berlin milieu does mean that it’s not exactly the highest-stakes drama in the world, and certain swipes at the conformist nature of offline teenagerdom, such as three young men turning up at a party in the same check shirt, do feel a little overfamiliar. But then, the coming-of-age drama is a well-trafficked neighborhood, and it’s not in its essentials but in its details that Langhof differentiates her take.
This is a story that isn’t powered by technophilia or technophobia, but that takes these new online arenas — in which teenagers get to make the mistakes they’ve always made but in a more public forum than ever before — as a simple fact in a new world. If it is a kind of techno-morality play it’s a gratifyingly un-preachy one, suggesting that social media is simply another place for tribal teenage anomie to flourish on its painful path to maturity, because after all this time and all this progress, growing up still has no roadmap: You can’t avoid it, you can’t control it and you sure as hell can’t crowdsource it.