A multi-character criss-crosser with a big theme, Austrian helmer Barbara Albert’s sophomore feature “Free Radicals” is an often compelling drama, marbled with dry humor and flecked with the supernatural, that provides food for thought but doesn’t quite reach the brass ring. Flitting back and forth between a variety of people bound by fate and a desire to find the meaning of it all, pic confirms Albert, in her early 30s, among the forefront of younger European talent. Film’s fest future looks rosy, but commercial chances are limited to arthouse auds, with less broad appeal than helmer’s 1999 debut “Northern Skirts.”
Theme of various people unknowingly linked by a common destiny or a subconscious need to discover what lies beyond the visible world has been a concern of directors from Claude Lelouch to Steven Spielberg (“CE3K”). In Albert’s pic, the inhabitants of a small Austrian town find their lives touched by the death of a young woman whose presence lingers over them after her funeral.
Manu Lebert (Kathrin Resetarits) is returning from vacation in the Gulf of Mexico when a butterfly flaps its wings in a tropical forest, a tornado suddenly appears, and her plane crashes into the sea. Manu is the only survivor. Flash forward six years, and she’s working in a supermarket back home, married to Andreas (Georg Friedrich), and with a pretty young daughter, Yvonne (Deborah Ten Brink).
On her way back from a disco, Manu finally meets her destiny, dying in a car crash. Relatives and friends gather at her funeral, including her wacky sister, Gerlinde (Marion Mitterhammer), and her brother, Reini (Martin Brambach).
Reini works as a teacher at a school, where one the pupils, Kai (Dominik Hartel), is still slightly traumatized by the death of his sister, who was kidnapped and killed before he was born. Kai has an edgy relationship with his g.f., Gabi (Nicole Skala).
Meanwhile, Reini tries to get to know a beautiful, half-Tanzanian woman, Sandra (Bellinda Akwa-Asare), who’s trying to find herself in group therapy. Sandra’s Austrian mother, Belinda (Gabriela Schmoll), who sings in a local choir, has an unrequited passion for a middle-aged cop.
As the pic moves from spring through summer and autumn to winter, in clear sections marked by the construction a big new shopping mall, script mixes and matches the characters, cutting back and forth between stories. Andreas feels guilty about his relationship with a teacher, Andrea (Ursula Strauss); Kai drifts into the orbit of another loner teen, Patricia (Desiree Ourada), who’s obsessed with the spirit world; the increasingly crazed Gerlinde has joyless sex with a cripple to ensure a roof over her head; and the young Yvonne, who falls ill, wonders when she’s going to meet mommy again.
What sounds grim on paper plays much lighter on screen, thanks to a black comic vein that runs through the movie, as well as Martin Gschlacht’s pin-sharp, beautifully-lit lensing and Albert’s underlying affection for her characters.
Albert’s habit of shooting characters from above, with ethereal breathing on the soundtrack, also gives the impression of some greater, unseen force (perhaps Manu herself) guiding and observing these lives as they bounce off each other in a continuation of the butterfly effect.
In need of a strong final reel to bring the strands together, pic uses a party at the opening of the shopping mall to unite the players in what is meant to be an ironic celebration of bland commercialism; a coda tries to bring an over-arching spiritual dimension to the whole movie.
The problem is that there’s a lack of genuine community to the characters: The mini-stories essentially remain separate islands, and some work much better than others. It’s also difficult to simply sort out the relationships, which are often unclear from the info presented on screen.
As a result, “Free Radicals,” though fiercely intelligent, is a movie in which a Big Picture doesn’t satisfyingly emerge from the mass of small details. There’s also an underlying feeling that Albert herself has taken on too ambitious a theme at this early stage in her feature career.
Still, performances are fine down the line, with special mention for Ourada’s weird teen, Brambach’s shy brother and Schmoll’s middle-aged chorister. Tech credits are tops in all departments.