How do you make a portrait of an empty-headed young man at the most empty-headed moment of his life not feel like a film that has similarly little on its mind? At 28, Estonian first-time feature director Triin Ruumet attempts to meet this challenge with “The Days That Confused,” a woozy take on the one-last-summer-of-youth narrative, set with interesting specificity in small-town Estonia in the 1990s. She is only partially successful — all the directorial flourishes, period detail and recurring motifs in the world can’t quite conceal the thinness of this predictable story — but there are moments when “The Days That Confused” does earn its punny English title, if only ironically.
Whereas the 1993 Richard Linklater classic it evokes has a palpable fondness for the moment it enshrined, just before the future, with all its possibilities, begins, Ruumet’s film is much less nostalgic. It’s sun-drenched and occasionally hedonistic, but “The Days That Confused” is less a dream of youth than a minor-key nightmare, and it leads not to a moment of liberation and possibility, but to an acceptance of inevitable adult responsibility that feels like a shutting-down — an end.
We first meet Aller (an impressive Hendrik Toompere Jr.) as he and his friends guzzle beers and watch an informal all-girl outdoor volleyball game, catcalling and whistling and bellowing crude come-ons to the players. They’re chased off by the coach, but not before one of the girls, Maria (the very beautiful Klaudia Tiitsmaa) exchanges a long, suggestive look with Aller, after which the guys speed off drunkenly in their car and promptly crash. Dazed and bleeding, Aller stumbles away from the wreck, running for the far-off treeline and eventually coming to a lake where Juulius (Juhan Ulfsak), a shady low-level gangster with a BMW, is taking a swim. They strike up an acquaintance and soon Aller, who spends more time avoiding work than looking for it (much to the annoyance of his parents, with whom he still lives), becomes Juulius’ de facto lieutenant. They attend parties and make house calls together, and while the largely clueless Aller is never fully aware of the nature of Juulius’ business, he’s closely enough associated with him that when things go south, Aller will also be implicated.
But the somewhat generic crime drama elements are not the film’s real concern, which is to capture this loose string of days in Aller’s life in all their careless (as opposed to carefree) episodic unfolding. He takes up with local girl Nele (Jaanika Arum) but runs into Maria again, a rich daddy’s girl studying law in Talinn and holidaying in the region. There is a clear undercurrent of urban vs. rural and upper middle vs. working class tensions to their interactions, which especially comes to a boil during a fraught party at which Aller’s boozed-up, boorish friends pick fights with the preppie Talinners who are Maria’s university acquaintances.
As though aware that her story is perhaps not the most original, Ruumet, who also wrote the script with Greta Varts, takes an oblique approach to time ellipses and subjectivity, lending the film a sheen of impressionistic artistry that certainly suggests she is not without authorial filmmaking talent. But at times the dissociative mood of the piece can simply feel diffuse, lacking in focus, and while a certain degree of confusion is clearly what she’s going for as a way to evoke Aller’s floundering state of mind, too much becomes merely frustrating. It’s a line Ruumet has not quite mastered walking as yet.
But there are definitely some impressive aspects, too: the recurring imagery of blood and bleeding is marked and intriguing, even if it’s hard to discern its import. And the time and place is imagined well — Aller is given a pager, and at one point casually plays a game of Duck Hunt — and the unobstrusively accurate costuming summons early-’90s, small-town Estonia in a subtly immersive way. Less subtle, though no doubt just as accurate, is the use of many Estonian pop songs on the soundtrack (at one point, various cast members in various locations sing consecutive lines of a particular tune). But while those songs are doubtless evocative for a homegrown audience, for the rest, the soundtrack is composed of bland sometimes kitschy-sounding pop.
With a disaffected lead character, a mood of torpor and subtle dissatisfaction, and a storyline of not-hugely-surprising beats, there are not very many ways into “The Days That Confused” and not a huge amount new to be taken out. Ruumet is laudably attempting the sort of anthemic generational snapshot Linklater delivered, or, more recently Mia Hansen-Love gave us with “Eden,” but she doesn’t quite manage the trick that those films pulled off so impressively: of making a movie about ephemerality whose pleasures are more than fleeting.