The sins of parents and teachers are visited on their progeny and students in “The Wild Children,” a largely subtle, compassionate and perceptive take on bad education affecting a trio of Catalan teens. Helmer Patricia Ferreira’s strongest work to date delivers a clear call to grownups to mend their ways, filtered through a neatly structured criss-crossing narrative that stumbles only in its overblown final act. An engrossing drama as well as an urgent cry for social change, the pic should reap further fest bookings after multiple awards at April’s Malaga fest. It opened locally May 25.
Essentially, the pic offers a study of three families in breakdown. Fifteen-year-old Alex (Alex Monner) is a tough but good-hearted graffiti artist who prefers to ditch school for odd jobs rather than attend the dull lessons given by spiteful teacher Vicenc (Marc Rodriguez). Alex’s bar-owner father, Antonio (Eduardo Velasco), and mother, Rosa (Ana Fernandez), seem to occupy separate worlds from Alex, per the rap song over pic’s final credits.
Wannabe kickboxer Gabi (Alberto Baro) is a sensitive, soft-spoken boy whose macho father (Jose Luis Garcia Perez) runs a gym and instills fear in his wife (Montse German), who clings to Gabi for comfort. Bored teen Oky (Marina Comas) comes from a wealthier background, and her control-freak father (Francesc Orella) and insecure mother (Clara Segura) compensate for the lack of affection at home with presents.
Well-intentioned school psychologist Julia (Aina Clotet) obtains a grant for Alex to go abroad and study graffiti art, but when he fails to find the money for living expenses, his dreams are crushed; likewise, Gabi is disillusioned when he realizes his father is a philanderer. Meanwhile, things worsen at home for Oky after the three youths spend all night in a shopping mall they break into.
The story shuttles at times confusingly between school-panel interviews, with the trio following a major tragedy that’s revealed only in the final minutes, and the events leading up to said tragedy. Reading about what actually happened in the press apparently inspired Ferreira to write the script, but the story’s basis in truth doesn’t automatically make it credible.
This is a shame, because Ferreira and co-scripter Virginia Yague are generally very careful about the story’s human logic, showing how apparently insignificant moments can build to authentic horror. The sometimes comically surreal classroom setpieces are especially well done, while a staff meeting to discuss the students’ problems, and a beautifully played final meeting between two of the mothers, adroitly sum up most of the pics concerns: It’s not the children but the adults who are the problem. This applies to the teachers, who mostly fail to see their charges as individuals, and to the sometimes well-intentioned parents, who unthinkingly impose their own values on their offspring.
Ferreira has dealt with troubled teens in her previous work, and thematically there’s little here that’s new. But a thoroughly contempo feel and classy perfs all around, especially from the teens, inject the proceedings with vitality. Likable without being perfect, energetic without being dangerous to anyone, these are just normal youngsters whom society is twisting out of shape.
Lensing is mostly handheld, while Miguel Antonio Frutos’ editing ensures things run smoothly as the tension mounts. Occasionally, cameras follow teens down corridors, repping perhaps too obvious a nod to Gus Van Sant’s “Elephant.”