Tapping in to primal fears of professional ineptitude and social rejection with an almost sadistic meticulousness, “The Forest for the Trees” is a precisely modulated first film about an idealistic young educator ostracized for her lack of teaching skills and civil graces. Equally adept at sidestepping genre expectations and creating an atmosphere of oddly bracing bleakness, this unheralded late-Toronto discovery will segue with ease to other discerning fests, and could transcend its sludgy vid palette to earn specialized arthouse dates and leafy ancillary.
Full of youthful idealism, 27-year-old Melanie Proeschle (Eva Loebau) leaves her rural flat and boyfriend to take a mid-year post teaching fifth- and ninth-graders in the southwestern German city of Karlsruhe. The school atmosphere is immediately intimidating, as her aloof colleagues are older, and dismissive of her more progressive yet disastrously discipline-free teaching techniques. The only teacher near her own tender age is the vaguely geeky Thorsten Rehm (Jan Neumann), who seems friendly but comes on too strong.
Things seem initially more promising at home, where Melanie sunnily greets her largely disinterested new neighbors with homemade schnapps before initiating a tentative friendship with the infinitely more worldly Tina Schaffner (Daniela Holtz), who lives across the way and seems to be involved in a tempestuous relationship.
The worse things get at school, the more Melanie begins to unconsciously overcompensate by inserting herself in Tina’s life. At first friendly and tolerant, the neighbor soon grows openly hostile, prompting Melanie to succumb to the pressures of her life via a climactic act at once jarringly unexpected and gracefully ambivalent.
It becomes quite clear shortly into this quietly assured work that first-time director Maren Ade has no interest in exploring either the more lurid aspects of her protagonist’s mental dissolution or any kind of genre-fueled revenge fantasy. Rather, the film deftly balances Melanie’s substantial social shortcomings with initially sympathetic glimpses into her grief process. She eats lunch alone in an unused closet, and her initial attempts to befriend Tina are immediately recognizable to anyone who’s ever tried to fend off loneliness.
In fact, it’s difficult to say when exactly Melanie goes off the rails, and it is the fearless performance of Eva Loebau, who limned a role of similar emotional bravery in Iain Dilthey’s 2001 graduation film “I’ll Wait on You Hand and Foot,” that charges the film with tension and unease. Holtz and Neumann contribute strong supporting perfs that buttress pic’s emotional ambiguity.
Ade may have gained a more intimate approach to storytelling by using a DV Cam, but downside is an anemic, washed-out look; the 35mm blow-up on view at the Toronto fest helped enormously. Good use is made of the Grandaddy song “He’s Simple, He’s Dumb, He’s the Pilot,” which lends the proceedings an air of sinister poignancy.
The daughter of two teachers, Ade shot on location in her Karlsruhe hometown with her mother’s students playing Melanie’s charges. After a year spent on the German fest circuit, pic will bow domestically in early 2005.