It takes a pack of wolves to raise the young protagonist of “No One’s Child,” and the dogs of of war to drop him back into the abyss. Such is the cruel arc of Serbian writer-director Vuk Rsumovic’s captivating debut feature, based on the true story of a feral boy’s gradual assimilation into supposed civilization after being discovered in the Bosnian wilderness. Integrating universal human drama with pointed political context while deftly dodging sensationalism at every turn, Rsumovic unfolds this Pre-Teen Wolf narrative with clarity, compassion and understated formal confidence. Boosted by a deserved Critics’ Week victory at Venice, this “Child” is unlikely to go unclaimed by distributors and further fest programmers for long.
The premise of “No One’s Child” might lead savvy viewers to expect a virtual rerun of Francois Truffaut’s neglected 1970 gem, “The Wild Child.” Indeed, the films do open similarly, with a title card solemnly establishing the story’s fact-based credentials leading into a tense, agitated sequence depicting the woodland flush-out of the titular tyke (played here by Denis Muric). Rsumovic’s film has very much its own concerns, however, with the story of one boy’s evolution posing broader questions about personal and national identity, not to mention the relative merits of human versus animal savagery. Happily, Rsumovic’s screenplay largely eschews obvious bleeding-heart rhetoric, counting on the actors’ physical interplay to convey social contrast and conflict.
Haris, as the protagonist is randomly named by an official, is found by Serbian hunters in early 1988, some way outside the town of Travnik in Bosnia-Herzegovina; though presumably a local, he’s sent instead to an orphanage in Belgrade. Doctors are pessimistic that he’ll ever be able to functionally interact with other humans, though the orphanage’s dedicated minder Ilke (Milos Timotijevic, faintly resembling a Srpska Jason Segel) perseveres with patience, gradually coaxing the frightened, violent waif into some clothes and, most crucially, onto two legs. Viewers are shown none of Haris’ life prior to his rescue, though his lupine body language and oral emissions speak for themselves.
Haris’ fellow orphans, unsurprisingly, are less charitable, their teasing often giving way to outright bullying. (Puchke, their unflattering nickname for him, winds up sticking.) Though the films’ scenarios are otherwise very different, the pic would make interesting side-by-side viewing with Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy’s recent Cannes hit, “The Tribe”; both examine the aggressive hierarchical competition that develops between youths deemed and treated alike by virtue of disadvantage.
One kid, spunky hard-luck case Zika (Pavle Cemerikic, excellent), is kinder than the rest and selected to room with Haris; the tender, heartrending bond that develops between the boys is akin to a dog-and-master relationship. Circumstances dictate their ultimate separation, however, while the inflammation of the Balkan War by 1992 brings governmental pressure on the now semi-civilized Haris to return to his homeland. The leveling impact of wartime chaos on the kid’s status is felt in a devastatingly ambiguous final act that brings the narrative not quite full circle.
The film’s success hinges significantly on Muric’s performance in a role that requires him to chart a subtly dramatic evolution over a four-year timeframe, dependent on little but fierce force of personality to hold the audience’s sympathy at his least articulate. With sensitive but not overevident assistance from his director, the young actor proves up to the task: His reckless physical abandon at the outset is genuinely unnerving, his tentative demonstrations of trust and affection touching but not mawkish. As his pragmatic but profoundly invested guardian, Timotijevic brings just the right note of dry, good-humored empathy to proceedings. A Lifetime-style take on this story might have made him the star, but Rsumovic rarely pulls focus from the outstanding kid ensemble.
Unshowy technical contributions are of a very high standard, with production and costume design both reflecting the economic restrictions (and, in the orphans’ case, the somewhat blinkered Western influence) of the milieu. Damjan Radovanovic’s solemnly hued, beautifully framed widescreen lensing is attuned throughout to Haris’ curtailed, slowly expanding perspective — a transition also lent an imaginative assist by fine, fluid differentiations in the pic’s sound design. Only Jura Ferina and Pavao Miholjevic’s generally tasteful score occasionally strikes too heavy a note of pathos in a story that needs few external emotional cues.