A dazzling cinematic style becomes the dreamy, death-obsessed substance of a troubled teen’s mind in Polish helmer-writer Kuba Czekaj’s wild coming-of-age tale “The Erlprince.” While riffing on Goethe’s famous poem “The Erlking” to reflect the world in a mirror of fables, the drama reflects on, among other things, an approaching apocalypse and the possible existence of parallel worlds. Started before Czekaj’s even wilder Venice and SXSW entry “Baby Bump” (2015) but completed afterward, it, too, gives an unorthodox spin to archetypes and confirms the helmer as a talent to watch. Adventurous fest and small-screen programmers should take a look.
“The Erlprince” centers on the turbulent adolescence of a 15-year-old science prodigy (Staszek Cywka) and his relationship with his controlling mother (Agnieszka Podsiadlik) and a man (Sebastian Łach) who appears halfway through the film and seems to be his father. (The characters are never addressed by their names and are referred to as Boy, Mother and Man in the end credits.) Rather than providing the beats of a traditional narrative, the film’s sophisticated sound design and repeated visuals forge connections in a manner that echoes the roiling emotions of adolescence.
The stylized action takes place at an unspecified but seemingly contemporary place and time where the news media and a computer website continually advise that the end of the world is nigh. There are urban locations including a school, a nightclub, a police station, lonesome highways seen by night, a tunnel. But there are also hallucinatory scenes unfolding in a mythic forest, with a hunter, wolves and a lake with a glittering red bush.
Although the boy may be a physics mastermind, he definitely lacks social skills. When he is bullied at his new school, his mother has to step in. Their relationship is torrid; at some points practically incestuous. They continually fight and makeup. He’s jealous of her part-time work as a child-minder, but he resents her constant ordering him about. Meanwhile, she pushes him to enter a physics competition with big prize money.
When the man arrives on the scene, he encourages the boy to take some steps toward adulthood by breaking away from the mother. In the forest and at a strange zoo where the man seems to be the wolf-keeper, the boy has strange, fairy-tale-like experiences that help cultivate his theory of parallel worlds.
Whereas Czekaj’s “Baby Bump” dealt with the physical exigencies of growing up in an often grotesque and vulgar manner, “The Erlprince” plays with Romanticism as a style. It functions like a ballad about the end of childhood and the entering of a new and undiscovered territory. Although the film may not speak to all audiences, the youth jury of Poland’s Gdynia festival voted it best film in the national competition.
While committed performances from the three leads keep the material compelling, the savvy craft credits deserve major kudos. From the atmospheric lensing by Adam Palenta (who also shot “Baby Bump”) to Daniel Gąsiorowski’s tempo-setting cutting, from the contrast of the white-on-white world of academia with the hyper-saturated colors of the forest in Anna Wunderlich’s production design to Bartek Gliniak’s smart score and Radosław Ochnio immersive sound design, they exemplify extreme creativity on a budget.