An emotionally engaging coming-of-ager set in Rotterdam, “Lena” features one of the most complex and endearing teen heroines of recent years. Continually onscreen and effortlessly carrying the film, non-pro Emma Levie bravely embodies the title character, while Christophe van Rompaey (“Moscow, Belgium”) directs with tenderness and empathy. Although its downbeat denouement and unconventionally attractive lead thesp may put a damper on theatrical play outside its co-production countries, this character-driven drama deserves wide attention. Further fest travel is a given; pic also reps ideal fare for cinematheques, Euro TV and other home-viewing formats.
Smart, sensitive and responsible, plump 17-year-old Lena (Levie) lives in the projects with her needy, nastily critical mother, Danka (Agata Buzek), a Polish immigrant who barely speaks Dutch. Unhappy without a man in her bed, promiscuous Danka has an unspoken agreement with her daughter: If the Polish flag is in the window, Lena shouldn’t come in because Danka has company.
Lena, too, is wantonly looking for love, but she winds up performing quickies in dark corners with loutish lads who would never want to be seen in public with a fat girl. But her luck changes when she crosses paths with Daan (Niels Gomperts), an open-faced charmer with a secret life.
Daan lives with his widower father Tom (Jeroen Willems), a jazz musician, in a big house in a leafy suburb. Soon, Lena, is living there, too, providing a capable feminine presence both men come to rely on, while Danka telephones nonstop, both needing her daughter and needing to undermine her. When Lena discovers what Daan really gets up to when he claims to be in school, she shows winning strength of character and moves out. But sadly, her limited circumstances soon curtail her ability to act on principle.
Allowing the story to unfold through Lena’s eyes, Flemish helmer Van Rompaey fluidly combines an atmospheric naturalism with repeated scenes of intense, stylized subjectivity as we hear Lena’s inner thoughts in voiceover during her line-dancing class. Her mantra, “If something goes wrong, make sure no one can see it … always go on … ” poignantly reveals the pressures she is internalizing.
One can see how the screenplay by Dutch scribe Mieke de Jong, as a bare-bones construct, rationalizes an ending in which Lena ends up victimized, but the nuanced helming and Levie’s mature, full-bodied playing work against it, so the final act reps a disappointing copout.
Thesping by Levie, Buzek and Gomperts is excellent, but Willems, saddled with a hard-to-believe character arc, struggles a bit. Leading the fine tech package, smooth handheld lensing by Menno Westendorp in an intimate 4:3 aspect ratio makes palpable Lena’s isolation and determination.