A Roma moppet sets out on a picaresque journey to claim the titular prize in Diana Groo’s small but charming sophomore pic, “Vespa.” Though its lensing is uneven, this deceptively simple tale is saved by straightforward helming and the thesps’ naturalistic perfs. Local auds will want to take this “Vespa” for a spin, but its ethnographic angle and easily accessible story should also appeal to fests looking for crowdpleasers and fare suitable not just for adults.
Twelve-year-old scamp Lali (Sandor Toth) lives in the countryside with his caring mother, Mari (Julia Nyako), who’s just recently started dating again after the (unexplained) departure of Lali’s father. Mari is aware her son secretly smokes and plays cards, but she doesn’t see the harm in letting him do these things with other kids of his age — though she doesn’t tell him that.
At a card game, Lali wins a bar of chocolate from one of his pint-sized opponents. Just as in “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” the wrapper contains a voucher that says he’s won a prize — a fire-truck-red scooter — that he has to collect in person in Budapest.
Naive Lali decides he’s big enough to go there by himself, and reckons he’ll be back in time before his mom notices; perhaps he’ll even have a chance to see his dad, though he’s unsure of his whereabouts. Lali meets Feri (Rudolf Balogh), a benevolent street musician who gives him a ride to Budapest and helps him out; from this simple setup, Groo and co-scripter Ivan Szabo spin a coolly observant yet affecting tale that never slides into sentimentality.
Impressive perfs from the small ensemble help keep things grounded, as does Groo’s impressive command of tone. This only falters toward the end, with a short sequence of some laughably drawn villains; the pic’s strong suit is its tranquil disposition and belief in the essential goodness of people.
Though only briefly sketched in early scenes, the very real and loving rapport between Mari and Lali reps one of the pic’s most authentic touches. It also makes it easier for auds to sympathize with the boy before he sets off on his journey. (These warm family scenes are a refreshing change from the trouble-plagued Roma clans seen in most movies.)
The pic’s biggest letdown is its cinematography. Shot on 16mm (with an OK blow-up to 35mm), the film features some stunning shots, but d.p. Sandor Kardos’ mix of crane shots, pans, high overhead shots and handheld lensing lacks a clear overall vision. Decision to shoot mainly with available light in exteriors means footage shot on largely overcast days is flat and lacks detail.
Stereo sound mix neatly pays attention to ambient sounds, and the rest of the tech package is OK.