Berlin Forum discovery Garin Nugroho takes the big step up to Cannes with “Leaf on a Pillow,” fourth and best feature to date by the 37-year-old Indonesian helmer. Kaleidoscopic portrait of a bunch of street urchins is a well-worked subject, but Nugroho and his non-pro tykes bring a poetic humanity to the pic, free of preaching and heavy emoting. Limited distribution in some territories could be in the cards, with fests and upscale webs providing further platforms.
Movie is the first produced by veteran Indonesian actress Christine Hakim (who also stars), and her money has been well spent. Burnished lensing by d.p. Nur Hidayat is consistently sharp and good-looking, without the unreal beauty of his previous collaboration with Nugroho, “… And the Moon Dances.” There is also a sophisticated Dolby Digital effects track, rare for an Indonesian picture and done in Australia, that adds atmosphere and texture to the story.
Most important, Nugroho has got the running time right on this occasion, with none of the longueurs that took the shine off “Moon” and his earlier “A Letter From an Angel” (1994). As in “Angel,” he shows a natural gift for working with children and non-pros; here, however, his technique hits just the right balance between naturalism and interpreted reality. At 80 minutes, pic is well paced and an easy sit.
Set and shot (prior to the recent troubles) in Nugroho’s hometown, the ancient capital Jogjakarta, the movie is a loose collection of incidents focused on a handful of kids who group around Asih (Hakim), a middle-aged woman who has a small food-supply business and whose aberrant husband visits her only when he wants money. There’s young Kancil, who’s accidentally decapitated when fooling around atop a train one day; the older Heru, who harbors a secret passion for Asih and later falls foul of some insurance scamsters; glue-sniffing brat Plin, who’s always being scolded by the other kids; Denny, who also fancies the maternal Asih; and Sugeng, who meets an untimely end after trying to help a buddy.
Characters take awhile to swim into focus, and Nugroho’s free-form approach to plotting is confusing in the early stages; but with Hakim providing a pro core in her low-key role as the boys’ de facto mother figure, the viewer is slowly drawn into the urchins’ nether world, a mere step or two away from regular life in the touristy, photogenic city. Perfs by the kids, largely playing variations on themselves, are just fine.