The schoolroom drama genre is heavily populated with impassioned, benevolent literature teachers who don’t play by the book, looking on as young minds expand and flourish under their unusual instruction. But what if they get it wrong? What if the freeing of some minds spells danger for others? Such questions are raised — but never too patly answered — in “Shock Waves – Diary of My Mind,” Swiss director Ursula Meier’s short, riveting exploration of adolescent psychosis, teacherly responsibility, and the moral minefield that connects them. This horrifically fact-based story of a veteran French teacher (Fanny Ardant) made involuntarily complicit when one of her brightest students (Kacey Mottet Klein) commits double parricide benefits from frank but humane handling by Meier and her top-form stars alike: The results are subtly shocking but unsensationalized.
Running a very lean, well-packed 70 minutes, this high-impact miniature was produced for Swiss television as one in a quartet of compact character studies — “Shock Waves” is the name of the series — rooted in startling local crime cases. However, Meier’s entry, like Lionel Baier’s even shorter “First Name: Mathieu,” was selected to premiere at the Berlin Film Festival, and despite its minimalist form, the cinema feels like this quiet nerve-knotter’s natural home. Multiple festival berths will follow, while Ardant’s arthouse name value should secure “Diary of My Mind” multi-platform distribution in certain territories.
For 19-year-old rising star Mottet Klein, meanwhile, the film completes a fascinating coming-of-age under his director’s devoted camera lens. Meier has tenderly followed the actor’s physical and thespian development her features “Home,” “Sister,” as well as in 2014’s documentary short “Kacey Mottet Klein, Naissance d’un acteur,” and the prodigious kid emerges from the chrysalis here as an actor of frightening power and vulnerability. Those qualities operate in tandem throughout his performance as Benjamin, a quiet, clever but deeply unhappy teen in small-town Switzerland who unceremoniously shoots both his parents at close range one Friday morning, before turning himself in to the authorities.
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Before the murder, however, he has some homework to complete. Having been instructed to write a personal journal by his teacher Madame Fontanel (Ardant), Benjamin commits his advance confession and motivation for the crime to paper in lucid, literate detail, neatly parceling it up and posting it to Fontanel just before doing the deed. Days later, she’s forced to open it and read it in the presence of police, horrified to find that she’s unwittingly been made the boy’s confidante to such upsetting truths — though you can’t say he hasn’t thoroughly met the demands of her assignment. The police treat Fontanel with hostile skepticism, as if she were a knowing accessory, particularly when she mentions previous signs of psychological distress in his schoolwork that went unreported.
“Should I call the police every time I hear a hateful word?” she counters. Fontanel intends her classroom to be a safe creative space for her students, though Benjamin’s crime disturbingly proves the limitations of such sanctuary: What’s the line between an open mind and closed eyes? As an educator, she may have been out of her depth, yet it’s hard not to side with the devastated but defiant Fontanel as the law takes an increasingly anti-intellectual view of her role in the case: She’s admonished for recommending off-syllabus literature to Benjamin (including Rimbaud) that “risked giving him mad ideas,” while the boy’s own defence lawyer labels her a “bad influence.”
Ardant superbly plays Fontanel as a tight knot of devastation and defiance, self-doubt lining her face even as she softly stands her ground in the face of accusatory interrogation — those flickers of internal conflict registering strongly through d.p. Jeanne Lapoirie’s preference for inquisitive but warmly forgiving close-ups. It’s in her later scenes with Benjamin, however, that the film mostly tensely takes flight, the space between them brittle with anger, loneliness and a sorrowful sense of betrayal on both sides, leading into an unexpected twist of grace that wouldn’t ring true if the actors weren’t so edgily attuned to each other in the first place. Meier keeps a firm, minimalist grip on proceedings while giving her actors — and her audience — plenty of air to consider the untidy questions floating anxiously around them.