The burden of having a child for a mother weighs heavily on “Jack,” an affecting but unsurprising slice of German social realism that takes significantly fewer chances than its scrappy eponymous protagonist. This third feature from NYU-schooled, Berlin-based helmer Edward Berger nods credibly to the Dardenne brothers and Ken Loach in its unhappy (if not unhopeful) portrait of a loving single-parent family split by fecklessness and bad fortune, but is short on character development and socio-economic texture. Handsomely lensed and intelligently performed, “Jack” should encounter sympathetic auds in its Berlinale competish slot, but may prove too muted and tonally indistinct for international arthouse exposure.
Thirteen years have passed since Berger’s last theatrical feature, “Female2 Seeks Happy End,” during which time he has worked chiefly in television. The bright, unaffected shooting style of “Jack” betrays that background, which is no bad thing, though the non-urgent nature of the storytelling perhaps suggests a filmmaker accustomed to the more expansive medium. (Even at a relatively tidy 102 minutes, this episodic, somewhat repetitive pic could stand to lose around 15 of them.) Per press notes, child labor laws necessitated an extended 48-day shoot, and that process has enabled a palpable rapport between Berger’s actors — his two young leads in particular. Yet the script, by Berger and regular collaborator Nele Mueller-Stoefen, exercises less deliberation in unpacking their characters; we scarcely know more about the core family by the last frame than we do in the first.
The wiry, solemn-faced Jack (first-time actor Ivo Pietzcker) is introduced to us in a flurry of preternaturally adult activity, hastily pulling the household into shape as he bundles his 6-year-old half-brother, Manuel (Georg Arms), off to school. It’s already clear from this establishing scene that the absence of their twentysomething mother, Sanna (Luise Heyer), is the norm rather than the exception: A sweet-natured but scatty party girl who works long hours and discards boyfriends with a shrug, she plainly adores her kids without having much of a clue what to do with them. When an accident befalls Manuel under Jack’s watch, social services intervene; their decidedly questionable conclusion is to leave the younger boy in his mother’s care, while sending Jack to a state-run children’s home.
Though kindly monitored by house guardian Becki (played with warmth and between-the-lines detail by Mueller-Stoefen herself), Jack is miserable at the home, where he’s brutally bullied by a near-feral peer. Following a particularly violent altercation between them, he flees to Berlin and retrieves Manuel, only to find Sanna AWOL for a worryingly extended period. Unable to access their apartment and unwilling to seek adult help that may put the authorities on Jack’s tail, the boys take to the streets, resorting to rough sleeping and petty crime as they try to track down their mother.
In a setup fraught with danger, Berger is arguably a little too protective of his characters: It’s easy to feel concern for them without actively fearing for their survival. That’s partly because Jack, played by Pietzcker with opaque commitment, is such a tough nut to crack; his vulnerability only really emerges as an extension of his concern for his brother. (Guileless and responsive without seeming coached, young Arms gives the film’s most winning performance.) The boys’ unconventional, equal-footed relationship with their mother calls to mind a similar dynamic in Ursula Meier’s 2012 film “Sister,” which handled the non-nuclear family theme with more nuance and humor — not to mention a touch more generosity to women.
Tech credits are uniformly pro, though Christoph M. Kaiser and Julian Maas’ score could use a lot less sweetener. Jens Harant’s HD lensing is a particularly sharp asset, bathing the film in hard summer light that can run cruelly counter to the events on screen.