Coming of age is hard enough at the best of times, but when parents reject responsibility, as in “The Unpolished,” finding solid ground is nearly impossible. Debut helmer Pia Marais’ story of a 13-year-old searching for stability boasts a top-notch perf by newcomer Ceci Chuh, but script sags midway through and situations strain credulity just when pic needs to be tightened the most. Co-winner of a Tiger award at Rotterdam, pic is finding champions drawn to the adolescent girl’s plight, but fest life is unlikely to translate into arthouse play beyond local borders.
Studies of beatnik offspring unsurprisingly reveal bitter adults forced to compensate for their parents’ laissez-faire nesting skills; helmer Marais, herself raised by hippies, uses some of that chaos for inspiration. Stevie (Chuh) has been living with mom Lily (Pascale Schiller) in Portugal while dad Axel (Birol Unel) is in jail for dealing dope. The first glimpse of mother and daughter on the side of the road, dirty fingers sharing a cigarette, tells all we need to know about this untraditional family.
Stevie expects to go back to Portugal, but Lily breaks the news that they’ll be staying in Germany with the newly sprung Axel. The three are never alone, though, as hangers-on, including layabout Ingmar (Georg Friedrich) and free-love advocate Louise (Joana Preiss) come to stay at the house of Lily’s just- croaked father.
Marais is spot-on in portraying the atmosphere inside the home, with its mix of drugs, sexual tension and constantly shifting alliances. The ease with which Stevie returns Ingmar’s scurrilous badinage is played for maximum discomfort precisely because she seems, at 13, so adroit at the game.
Still, Stevie can see from watching “normal” families that her home life isn’t right, and she begins to construct elaborate tales to impress her peers, hoping for acceptance. But her parents can’t understand her need for stability, and even her attempts at school enrollment get sabotaged by their lackadaisical behavior.
Marais is good at revealing the hypocrisy in such an environment, when untethered sexual urges rankle supposed open minds, and immaturity reigns supreme. She’s less successful at capturing Stevie’s peers, who accept the tall-tale-telling interloper with much greater ease than your average clique-y adolescent girl. A mid-pic monologue by one of Axel and Lily’s coterie, chastising them for their behavior, plays like an unnecessary articulation of the aud’s conscience and should be axed.
Chuh has no problem carrying the film, and rarely has that razor-thin line between girlhood and postpubescence felt so destabilizing. Outwardly confident but gasping for a firm hand, Chuh could corner the market on such types for several more years.
Shot on Super-16 and blown up flawlessly to 35mm, pic’s visuals, as lensed by d.p. Diego Martinez Vignatti (whose helming debut “Tides” also competed at Rotterdam), go for a freewheeling approach, heavy on handheld to increase the story’s feeling of instability.