Underplaying the expected tears and inspirational uplift, “Oxygen” skirts disease-of-the-week cliche to deliver a touching portrait of youth facing mortality far too soon. Centering on a teen with cystic fibrosis, Hans Van Nuffel’s debut feature won the jury’s top Grand Prix des America at Montreal and shared the ecumenical prize with “The Day I Was Not Born.” “Oxygen” may not have enough flash or star power to go far theatrically, but it will certainly win further converts on the fest circuit while picking up home-format sales.
While similarly afflicted elder brother Lucas (Maarten Mertens) endures his more seriously challenged health with saintly patience (He shrugs, “It could be worse. We could be sick in America. Or gay in Iran.”), 17-year-old Tom (Stef Aerts) rebels against the condition both were born with. Between hospital stays, he hangs out with a group of ne’er-do-wells, taking part in their petty thefts and general rabble-rousing as an escape from dwelling on the fact that his life is likely to be short.
Still, his frailty makes periods of confinement unavoidable. During one such time, he meets fellow patient Xavier (Wouter Hendrickx), a 30-ish guy who seems to have achieved the dream adulthood Tom might never reach: cool job (underwater photographer), cool car and hot girlfriend (Marie Vinck), even if the latter also suffers from cystic fibrosis.
Further diversion is provided by a romance of sorts with Eline (Anemone Valcke), who’s quarantined for exposure to a virulent TB strain — Tom tries out his first kiss with her, albeit with a glass partition separating their lips.
Xavier’s disapproval of Tom’s unruly mates, especially jealous, ill-tempered Jimmy (Rik Verheye), creates a conflict between them that can’t be easily repaired. Pic, which has already fast-forwarded a few times, jumps five years ahead in its last lap, as Xavier and Tom again find themselves hospitalized together.
Excellent performances, astute direction and a thoughtful script (by Jean-Claude Van Rijckeghem and Van Nuffel) resist milking the theme for maudlin dramatics. Pic’s look appropriately echoes the antiseptic neutrality of medical institutions.