Good and evil are relatively easy to depict in cinema; it’s apathy that’s tough. Audiences crave characters with ambition, and Modris, the 17-year-old Latvian protagonist of the rather austere drama that bears his name, doesn’t yet know what he wants from life — though it’s not too early for his idle screw-ups to seriously impact his chances. First-timer Juris Kursietis shows enormous empathy for his subject in “Modris,” a naturalistic portrait in the tradition of “My Dog Killer” and earlier Dardenne brothers pics that observes the consequences of ambivalence, both individual and social, in a manner best suited for fest play.
It doesn’t take a professional psychologist to deduce what’s missing in Modris’ life: Raised by a frustrated single mother (Rezija Kalnina), the relatively decent kid (Kristers Piksa) lacks a positive male role model. It’s been years since he’s seen his father, and his mom taunts him with the threat that if he doesn’t get his act together, he’ll end up being a deadbeat in prison, like his dad — a bitter threat that may or may not be accurate.
Director Kursietis hosted an extensive talent hunt to find his leading man, a nonprofessional actor who naturally fits the part of an intense, internally conflicted teen. (With his bent nose and tall, lanky frame, Piksa also suggests a young Gottfried John, the stern, yet striking-looking Fassbinder collaborator who passed away earlier this month.)
The helmer surrounds Piksa with veteran adult thesps, encouraging an almost documentary-like approach, where the actors weren’t shown the entire script, and each of the unrehearsed, semi-spontaenous scenes take place in a single, dynamically handheld shot — so energetically engaged with whatever Modris is doing, most auds probably won’t even notice that the widescreen image seldom cuts. The pic shot in real locations, rather than studio interiors, lending additional texture to its already grubby authenticity. (Modris’ bedroom walls are covered in graffiti tags, while the streets around him appear cold and unforgiving.)
Piksa’s sharp facial features already convey a certain adult hardness, though his behavior and body language is that of a lost teen, still sleepwalking through a life where personal responsibility has yet to kick in. Modris is not unpopular at school, though he’s lost interest in attending classes, and lately, he’s developed a bad habit of playing the slot machines, blowing what little money he can scrounge on a losing strategy. The gambling’s starting to get out of hand these days, though he won’t let anyone get close enough to steer him in the right direction. Even his sort-of girlfriend (Inese Pudza) is ready to give up, uncertain where Modris disappears to and frustrated by his lack of focus.
Inspired by a true story relayed by a lawyer friend who felt he hadn’t done enough to help a directionless teen, Kursietis set out to capture this case of a young man perched on the brink of throwing his life away, less from any sort of active wrongdoing than from a passive failure to do what’s right. The turning point comes one otherwise normal evening when Modris pinches his mom’s electric heater, pawning it for a few coins he intends to use playing the slots.
Modris’ small-time gambling doubles as a metaphor for his poor life decisions of late: In pursuing minor selfish pleasures, it seems every choice he makes risks setting him back. This time, instead of going easy on her son, Modris’ mother calls the cops, hoping it will teach him a lesson.
When the teen shows up in court looking angry and disrespectful, the female judge takes a hard stand, too, sentencing Modris to a form of three-strikes probation that proves a little too easy to violate (his usual shenanigans of tagging buildings and riding the train without a ticket now stand to seriously damage his record). Before he knows it, the young man is headed down that same prison-bound road his mom so desperately wanted him to avoid.
In parenting, there are many times when it’s not enough to tell a child not to touch a red-hot stove; one simply has to let the kid learn for himself by touching it. But that tough-love approach can have serious consquences, as the film demonstrates. Although the details are particular to its Northern European setting, “Modris” could just as easily be transposed to an American inner city, where teens (especially minorities) frequently find themselves similarly overlooked by parents and the system. Is it someone else’s responsibility to steer Modris right, or simply a matter of bad luck that he doesn’t realize the consequences of passively drifting through life? In a downward-spiral story sure to frustrate those of more optimistic temperaments, Kursietis doesn’t offer answers, but he does an admirable job of raising questions.