“The Kids” is an engaging and convincing drama about the emotional and financial challenges faced by a Taipei teenage couple who become parents while still at school. Taking an even-handed approach to subject matter that’s frequently given sensationalist treatment, debuting writer-director Sunny Yu delivers a refreshing and very well-performed portrait of young people suddenly thrust into a world of adult responsibility. Clever nonlinear storytelling, well-judged dashes of humor and a splendid original score are further plusses of a rewarding package; film festival programmers should give this one a look.
The opening scene introduces Bao-li (Wu Chien Ho), a 16-year-old who’s admired older girl Jia-jia ((Wen Chen Ling) from afar but hasn’t yet mustered the courage to talk to her. His chance arrives when Jia-jia is dragged by her peers to the school rooftop and humiliated for “stealing someone else’s boyfriend.” In what’s much more a meet-awkward than a meet-cute, Bao-li nervously offers Jia-jia a helping hand and receives an encouraging smile in return.
The couple’s first moment together turns out to be their last for the next 20 minutes of screen time. In a bold and winning move, Yu shows very little of Bao-li and Jia-jia’s romance, and nothing of their preparations for parenthood. Instead, she leaps ahead to Bao-li working in a restaurant and diligently saving for a rental deposit that’ll allow him and Jia-jia to move out of the cramped apartment they’re sharing with his unnamed single mother (Yang Chi).
The committed youngster’s mother has a bad gambling problem, but elsewhere he’s surrounded by supportive, non-judgmental adults including family friends Uncle Liu (Bi Zhi Gang) and Aunty Liu (Shirley Chien). He’s given baby clothes and toys by his tough-but-fair boss (Kao Meng Chieh), and middle-aged co-worker A-qin (May Hong) chimes in with amusing, no-nonsense advice about women.
It’s a very different story for Jia-jia. After finding work at a coffee shop, she begins an affair with her married, 40-ish boss, Zhe-wei (Lawrence Ko). Ominously circling the teenage mother is Zhei-wei’s friend, Zhang-qing (Yang Jing), a wealthy and childless woman who offers to help take care of the baby. The slow release of information regarding Zhang-qing’s true motives brings effective suspense and thriller elements into play in the film’s latter stages.
By the time Bao-li and Jia Jia appear in their second scene together, it’s painfully clear she’s lost in confusion and conflicting emotions. In one heart-wrenching moment conveyed by the delicate writing and spot-on acting that runs through the entire film, Bao-li realizes without any doubt that Jia-jia has been unfaithful, but chooses to carry on as if nothing’s wrong.
Yu’s thoughtfully constructed screenplay is careful not to condemn Jia-jia, even as she later walks out on Bao-li and finds herself installed in a characterless apartment by Zhei-wei. Flashbacks to the trauma she suffered at the hands of her violent father (Roger Huang), and big promises about love and security made by Zhei-wei, offer persuasive reminders to viewers that she, and indeed Bao-li, are still not adults.
Equally credible is the change in Bao-li’s behavior following Jia-jia’s departure and the devastating news that his mother has gambled away their combined savings. Even worse, she’s heavily in debt to shady types who want fast repayment — or else. The film’s final furlongs strike a punchy balance between Jia-jia re-thinking her options and Bao-li contemplating whether to accept the advice of best buddy A-da (Hong Chun Chun) and take desperate measures to remedy his severe financial problems. The bittersweet resolution feels just right.
A small-scale movie played in a deliberately low key, “The Kids” is very well performed by Wu as the dedicated dad and Wen Chen Ling as the vulnerable young mother. Supporting cast is also tops, with Hong standing out as Bao-li’s loyal and lively bestie. The cinematography by feature debutant Pei Chi-wei is crisp, unfussy and perfectly in tune with the story’s realistic tone. A valuable creative contribution is made by composer Wen Hsu, whose delicate score evokes sympathy without getting sentimental, and features beautiful acoustic guitar playing by Huang Qin Sheng. All other technical contributions are solid on a modest budget.