A deliciously observed, ironic take on middle-class Austrian life through an introverted teen’s eyes, “Lovely Rita” reps a strong step up to the feature plate by 28-year-old Jessica Hausner after a couple of well-remarked shorts. Though its subtly nuanced humor is unlikely to appeal to all tastes, film could carve a small career on the arthouse circuit via strong critical support, with specialized TV sales down the line. At the very least, further fest dates look certain.
Co-produced by coop 99, among whose heads is helmer Barbara Albert (“Northern Skirts”), pic is more evidence of the current renaissance in Austrian production, from accessible mainstream movies to smaller, strongly individual films like “Rita.” Though shot on DV, the result only occasionally shows its video origins — and, with its occasional, unsettling use of vibrant colors, in a positive way. In every other respect, the pic uses conventional filmmaking techniques.
Rita (Barbara Osika) is an outwardly quiet, inwardly determined teenager in an unidentified Austrian town who doesn’t get on with her classmates, perpetually skips school on one fabricated excuse after another, and is regularly locked in her room by her parents as punishment. Conventional to the hilt, her folks (Wolfgang Kostal, Karina Brandlmayer) just roll their eyes at her stubborn rebelliousness, with her father — in one of the pic’s running jokes — only really getting worked up at her refusal to leave the toilet seat down.
Rita divorces herself from all the expected norms of the society around her, patently bored by rehearsals (in English) of her school play, “The Inspector Calls,” and happier to spend time with a young schoolboy, Fexi (Christoph Bauer), enjoying a clandestine smoke in the surrounding snowy forests.
Though minimalist in many respects, the film doesn’t fall prey to the usual annoying pretensions of the genre. Editing is trim and free of longueurs, and Martin Gschlacht’s camerawork mixes sudden zooms with more straightforward compositions. Rita, too, is shown to be clearly capable of smiling and having fun, despite her largely expressionless demeanor. And though Hausner parcels out information in small packages, there’s no sense of deliberately trying to confuse the viewer, who is told and shown everything that is necessary and no more.
Her father, for example, clearly works in some conventional office job, even though his exact function is never spelled out; and Rita herself is clearly on the cusp of womanhood, even though her exact age isn’t mentioned. Instead, it’s all there up onscreen — in the natural but slightly uneasy performances by the non-pro cast and in the way they physically conduct themselves in everyday life.
In a touchingly comic sequence, Rita tries to relieve herself of her virginity with Fexi, who’s far too young to properly oblige. She then sets her sights on a regular bus driver (Peter Fiala), who mechanically does the business in a disco’s washroom and leaves Rita briefly lovelorn.
Realizing sex offers no real escape, Rita then plans to run away with Fexi. However, the outcome only tightens the psychological screws even more, and Rita’s solution is as shocking as it is unexpected, with a far greater kick than more grandstanding movies.
With her slightly hunched shoulders and pretty-if-she-took-the-trouble looks, Osika is splendid in the title role, never falling into easy mannerisms or overdoing Rita’s evident internal anger. Her performance, clearly molded by the director, is full of fine touches: After reaching the big city, for instance, she doesn’t know what to do with her freedom, and in a hotel room, after gazing at a painting that expresses free flight, she simply gets up to straighten it on the wall.
Other roles are all well cast, with Kostal in particular very good as Rita’s uncomprehending father, who thinks that well-ordered family life is the answer to everything.