If there appears to have been a recent surge in enthusiasm among younger filmmakers for the clipped, boxy proportions of the Academy ratio, there’s a notable divide in the aesthetic it is used to evoke. Where some filmmakers employ it to replicate the classical confines of golden-age cinema, others are looking to the present, shaving their frames to mirror the favored medium of Generation Instagram. Flemish director Fien Troch’s “Home” falls very much into the latter category. Often narrowing its image even further in jagged segues to iPhone video, this suitably rough-edged, raw-nerved kids-are-not-all-right drama fixates on technology as one of many communication barriers between contemporary adolescents and their parents. That’s hardly the hottest of takes, but it’s one that — like many of the film’s sensitive observations on the personal fears and social frustrations of its young subjects — rings bleakly true, even through the drastically amped-up drama of its final act.
It seems a cruel irony that, beyond a handful of Euro territories, the downbeat, vérité-style authenticity of Troch’s fourth feature is likely to limit it to the festival circuit, out of reach from the teenage audience that might connect with it most powerfully. Happily, its deliberately shabby, on-the-fly shooting style — a stark departure from the helmer’s previous, more refined collaborations with regular cinematographer Frank van den Eden, including 2008’s Emmanuelle Devos starrer “Unspoken” — makes “Home” a natural fit for VOD platforms, where it could readily be accessed on the smaller devices to which the filmmaking so frequently nods.
Troch’s script, co-written with her editor (and husband) Nico Leunen, takes its time in picking out a dominant strand from a introductory swirl of fractious confrontations between inter-connected teenagers and exasperated authority figures. Mouthy, recalcitrant Lina (Lena Suijkerbuijk) is coerced by her school principal into the emptiest of apologies for verbally abusing a teacher, while shy, sullen John (Mistral Guidotti) has an altercation with his domineering mother (a chilling Els Deceukelier) that barely hints at the truth of their profoundly dysfunctional relationship.
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But it’s aloof, imposing 17-year-old Kevin (Sebastian Van Dun) who emerges as the pic’s thoroughly anti-heroic protagonist. Banned by his parents from the family home after a spell in juvenile hall for an unspecified offense, he is instead taken in by his kindly but no-nonsense aunt Sonja (Karlijn Sileghem), who attempts to put him on the straight-and-narrow road to employability. While he tentatively befriends with his more scholarly cousin Sammy (Loïc Batog), it’s Sammy’s aforementioned friend John with whom he forms a closer, not entirely constructive bond. Troch perceptively identifies the fine line between benevolent unity and unintended bad influence in peer social networks — both human and online — as the narrative pushes these kids into deeper waters of risk and wrongdoing.
If the storytelling is a bit over-egged, however, “Home” avoids didactic cautionary-tale territory: Its most appalling developments (and the film does indeed take the worst case scenario where it presents itself) represent an equal collaboration between youthful and parental irresponsibility. Troch also takes a pleasingly amoral stand on her young subjects’ drug-taking and casually explicit expressions of sexuality, filming their behavior candidly but without any leading direction or implication on the camera’s part — just as kids’ own smartphone recordings and YouTube videos can preserve their present-day lives without editorial interference. Indeed, beyond the obvious cropping of the image, van den Eden’s juddering lensing very nearly lines up with the film’s occasional interpolations of vertically-shot phone video into the mise-en-scène; the mutual visual limits of the Academy ratio and the iPhone lens, meanwhile, both contribute to a mounting sense of claustrophobia in the characters’ lives.
Troch has coaxed fine, wholly unaffected work from her spiky, largely untested young ensemble, many of them first-timers, with Guidotti particularly heart-rending as the tormented, critically unsupported John. It’s no young actor’s fault, however, that the least shakeable performance here comes from Deceukelier, previously seen in Troch’s 2005 debut “Someone Else’s Happiness.” Playing perhaps the worst screen mom since Mo’Nique in “Precious,” she oscillates horrifyingly between hateful violation and vulnerable delusion — the least developed soul in this collection of inchoate bodies.