A slightly funky, very laid-back low-budgeter following six people whose lives intersect in Berlin, “Downhill City” is more festival fare than one for the commercial circuit, though the presence of German babe du jour Franka Potente (“Run Lola Run”) reps a marketing opportunity. Overall, it’s a more than solid feature debut by young Finnish-born writer-director Hannu Salonen, who studied at Berlin film and TV school DFFB.
Pic starts in Finland’s snowy wastes, with pop musician Artsi (Teemu Aromaa) bidding a fond farewell to his pals as he sets sail for Berlin, where he holes up in the Downhill City Hotel and tries to sell his songs. Meanwhile, in the same metropolis, ex-con Sascha (Sebastian Rudolph) wanders the streets looking for a place to live and is offered some space by Fabian (Axel Werner), an older guy determined to make it as a writer; and fast-food server Peggy (Potente) kicks out her boxing-obsessed b.f., Hans (Andreas Brucker).
Unbeknown to one another, the protags cross paths in the street, and slowly, their lives begin to blend. Artsi, failed and penniless, falls for Peggy at her burger joint and, in the pic’s most involving subplot, romances her by sheer force of his boyish charm; homeless Hans ends up bunking with Sascha and Fabian, and embarks on a romance with Doris (Michaela Rosen), a middle-aged bourgeoisie who’s walked out on her husband, and so on.
Rosen’s Doris is the only one to strike a false note in a film that goes for interesting, believable characters rather than flaunting its structural cleverness. Wearing large, plain Jane glasses and everyday wear, Potente still has a remarkable physical presence onscreen and bonds with the scrawny Aromaa; and as the pic progresses, Werner comes into his own as the taciturn older man forced to sell pizzas to fund his dreams.
Film’s unadorned, somewhat grungy look, heightened by Salonen’s docu-ish approach (and use of glaring colors in some interiors) doesn’t detract from its emotional strength and simple charm, which grow in the second half. Shearing by 10 minutes would benefit pacing.