A harried yet compassionate Czech couple copes with its rambunctious Romany adoptees and the small-town prejudices they spark in “Brats.” Pitched somewhere between family drama and social criticism, helmer Zdenek Tyc’s fourth feature is a well-modulated yet cumulatively affecting work that should garner a clutch of quality fest invites on its way to moderate theatrical dates, strong tube buys and decent ancillary.
Monika and Marek Sir (Petra Spalkova, Ivan Trojan) relocate their family to a small town southwest of Prague to escape both the bad city air that aggravates their pre-school-aged son Matej’s (Tomas Klouda’s) asthma and the bad attitudes toward their adopted Romany children, 11-year-old Lukas (Jan Cina) and 8-year-old Frantisek (Lukas Rejsek).
At Monika’s urging, Franta says “hello” and “goodbye” to everyone three times because he’s new in town and wants to make a good impression, and before long the boy has made a friend of genial, overweight classmate Pepa (Oldrich Kohout). One day when Franta is riding his bicycle, blustery pensioner Bartak (Zdenek Dusek) accuses him of breaking his windshield with a stone. Although it becomes increasingly obvious that the boy didn’t do it, Bartak’s bilious accusations toward the “black bastard” and eventual legal action upset the family to the point where an unauthorized bus trip to a far-away department store masterminded by Lukas is misunderstood as the boys running away.
The controversies surrounding the ubiquitous, roaming Romany population — also known as gypsies — continue to grow throughout Europe. Yet viewers expecting an incendiary clash of cultures are instead treated to a leisurely, visually eccentric tale with flashes of droll wit. Indeed, at every narrative turn, Tyc opts for dramatic subtlety over societal sensationalism.
In her first major role after distinctive support in “Kolya,” “Autumn Spring” and others, Spalkova brings a mercurial sincerity reminiscent of Emily Watson to Monika; the chemistry with the vulnerable yet dignified Trojan (seen in contempo Czech drama “Loners” and “Buttoners” helmer Petr Zelenka’s Erotic Tales short “Powers”) is essential to pic’s emotional balance. The tykes acquit themselves admirably.
Tech credits are eye-catching, with striking, eye-of-God overhead views of the town combining with a hummably quirky score to keep the mood light even when the emotions become heavy. A single take dinnertime scene shot a la the spinning camera of “That ’70s Show” is a modest triumph of timing and prop management, while each family member at some point during the film is given an extended close-up that captures his or her frustration and resolve.
Pic was developed during the Prague edition of the Sundance Screenwriters’ Lab in 2000 and lensed in the hometown of novelist and first-time scripter Tereza Bouckova, as well as in the capital and a burg whose name translates roughly as “St. John Under the Rock.”