A coming-of-age tale that is also about the impending loss of a parent, the engaging, unpretentious “Nena” gets a breakout performance from Abbey Hoes in the title role. Saskia Diesing’s first theatrical feature was an underdog winner of last year’s Golden Calf awards for best director and best actress in the Netherlands. It’s nearing the end of its festival run, but further offshore prospects are likely for this small-gauge but skillfully wrought drama, particularly in home formats.
It’s the summer of 1989, and though she lives with her Dutch mother, Martha (Monic Hendrickx), in a small town near the border, 16-year-old Nena (Hoes) focuses her primarily on her father. The marriage having apparently ended for reasons not fully clear — Martha appears to want nothing to do with her ex — Martin (Uwe Ochsenknecht) is alone. Or would be, if his degenerating physical condition (resembling if never specified as ALS) didn’t require assistance in nearly all things from both a genial paid caregiver, Theo (Fabian Jansen), and the religiously devout brother, Paul (Andre Jung), whom this bookish atheist has been forced to move in with.
Also a regular helpmate is the precociously mature Nena, although clearly it torments Martin to be dependent on anyone, particularly his own daughter. She doesn’t mind in the least, which is one reason why the eventual crux of Diesing and Esther Gerritsen’s astute screenplay becomes this only child’s very reluctant coming-to-terms with the fact that Dad needs her to sign off on his ending his unbearable existence. This is brought jarringly home midway through when Martin attempts to take his own life (not for the first time, it turns out), which Nena can at first only grasp as a bitter personal betrayal.
But even amid this turmoil, her teenage years check off some more ordinary milestones, most notably the acquiring of a first boyfriend, blue-haired punker Carlo (Gijs Blom, “Boys”), whom Nena meets when she makes the otherwise somewhat ill-judged decision to join an all-male baseball team. (Ill judged because she doesn’t seem to have any actual talent for the game.) Nor does the fact that Martin is eager to escape this mortal coil prevent him from exhibiting all the usual paternal grumpiness toward a daughter’s first beau.
“Nena” never loses its humor or resorts to sentimental melodrama even as its content inevitably grows more somber. (One clever tactic the scenarists use to maintain a deft tonal balance is having the leads constantly play either/or games, challenging each other to choose between options such as the eventually not-at-all-kidding suicide methods “gun or train?”) The incisive writing, astute pacing and polished but unshowy design contributions all elevate the film well above “Afterschool Special” tearjerking.
But the biggest plus by far is the titular turn by Hoes; her looks here are perfectly perched between guileless adolescence and adult beauty, as is her characterization, which makes Nena credibly wise beyond her years, yet prey to all their standard growing pains. She’s got the kind of winning, poised natural presence that made Winona Ryder’s breakout in “Lucas” seem so refreshing three decades ago — though at age 20, Hoes is already a Dutch tube and screen vet. Her chemistry with the appealing Blom is ideal, while German co-star Ochsenknecht is excellent in his emotionally charged, physically restrictive role.