Palm Springs Film Review: ‘Center of My World’

Fanciful gay romance from German author Andreas Steinhofel's prize-winning YA novel loses something in translation.

Center of my World
Copyright Universum Film / Paul Ploberger

Andreas Steinhofel’s prize-winning 1998 novel “The Center of the World” is considered an unusually ambitious and ornate work for Young Adult fiction — but one that proved so popular that the German author published a 2001 sequel. Still, the more complex a work, the trickier the adaptation into another medium. Its title — now “Center of My World” — isn’t the only thing that’s diminished in translation in Austrian director/writer Jakob M. Erwa’s third feature, which finds the book’s magical-realist air morphing into something a bit more cloyingly artificial.

Equal parts swoony YA romantic fantasy and misfit-coming-of-age chronicle a la Xavier Dolan (and Jean-Marc Vallee’s “C.R.A.Z.Y.”), this deliberately over-the-top exercise will intoxicate some viewers while striking others as over-directed and overwrought. Its shiny bravado should heighten commercial prospects, however, and deals already in place for several territories assure the film’s status as one of the more widely distributed recent non-English-language gay features.

After a three-week stint at a French-language camp, high-schooler Phil (Louis Hofmann) returns to his provincial German hamlet to find a literal storm has left the land a mess, while more figurative disturbances have altered his familiar relationships. (Still, it’s not clear why everyone treats him as if he’s been away a year.) Notably, his twin sister Dianne (Ada Philine Stappenbeck) is behaving in a surly and secretive manner, barely speaking to him, and not at all to their mother, Glass (Sabine Timoteo). Mom is an aging free spirit of vaguely American origin who seems to have established the family by chance in their rambling old “fairy-tale” house, dubbed Visible. Chance probably also determined her children’s conception, by some past boyfriend whose identity she has never shared with them.

Phil has a more boisterous reunion with best friend Kat (Svenja Jung), a wellspring of borderline-noxious teenage extroversion. She, like his immediate family, doesn’t blink at her bestie’s gay identity — in fact, nobody seems to have a problem with it, at school or anywhere else. Still, there’s a certain nervous secrecy to Phil’s crushing on new-kid-in-class Nicholas (Jannik Schumann), an athletic type with preening model looks. Though one might expect him to be unattainable, in fact he’s as attainable as can be. Soon the two boys are making out in the locker-room shower, then anywhere else they can find, with an older lesbian couple generously donating their guest cottage for afternoon trysts.

Erwa depicts an already idealized young-love scenario by pouring on the voyeristic nudity, fantasy scenes, childhood flashbacks, jump cuts, pop-song-drenched montages, and anything else he can think of. The result is less emotionally transporting than variably like silly soft-core porn and/or soft-focus TV advertising, with some wild melodrama thrown in. (When Phil experiences a crisis, the movie doesn’t hesitate a moment before letting him smash furniture in lyrical slo-mo to a caterwauling operatic aria.) It’s all a bit precious, and a bit much.

Yet amid the stylistic clutter and busy-feeling (though actually rather simple) narrative, a few things of real significance get neglected — notably “dark” twin Dianne, who’s so shunted to the side that when climactic revelations render her key to the whole tale, they feel like an afterthought phoned in from some other movie. It also seems a questionable decision to so completely downplay this eccentric family’s outcast status, a major element in the novel.

The director has apparently been pursuing Steinhofel’s book since he himself was a teen, and he may have had a little too much time to think up ideas for the long-gestating project. Though it duly channels the high drama of adolescent emotions, “Center” could have used more restraint in the execution, something it seems Erwa managed well enough on prior features “Homesick” and “All the Invisible Things.” Still, the filmmaker does get exactly the effects he’s going for here, and their excessive nature is unlikely to faze many viewers — certainly not ones who lapped up the pulpier YA romantic histrionics of “Twilight.”

The cast is fine when not cornered into being too one-dimensional or decorative, with Timoteo good in the most complexly drawn role. In all design and tech departments, “Center” is accomplished, albeit (as one might expect) often within an inch of flamboyant overkill.

Palm Springs Film Review: ‘Center of My World’

Reviewed at Palm Springs Film Festival (World Cinema Now), Jan. 11, 2017. (Also in Munich, Moscow film festivals.) Running time: 115 MIN. (Original title: “Die Mitte der Welt.”)

  • Production: (Germany-Austria) A Universum Film presentation of a Neue Schonhauser production in co-production with Prisma Film, Universum Film and Mojo Pictures in association with WDR, BR, ARTE and ORF. (International sales: M-Appeal, Berlin.) Producer: Boris Schonfelder. Co-producers: Viktoria Salcher, Mathias Forberg, Bernhard Zu Castell, Jakob M. Erwa.
  • Crew: Director/writer: Jakob M. Erwa, based on the novel by Andreas Steinhofel. Camera (color, widescreen, HD): Ngo The Chau. Editor: Carlotta Kittel.
  • With: Louis Hofmann, Sabine Timoteo, Ada Philine Stappenbeck, Jannik Schumann, Svenja Jung, Inka Friedrich, Nina Proll, Sascha Alexander Gersak, Thomas Goritzki, Clemens Rehbein.