To christen the main character in Russian director Ivan I. Tverdovsky’s third feature “Jumpman” is to suggest that 16-year-old Denis (lanky newcomer Denis Vlasenko) is some kind of superhero. Granted, he is “gifted” with congenital analgesia — a rare condition in which he feels no pain — but instead of using that power for good, this scrappy would-be X-Man might as well be just another rule-breaking hooligan, as compromised as the country that spawned him. The kid’s scheme involves throwing himself in front of rich people’s cars, then extorting the drivers for hasty payouts. To make the situation even more antiheroic, the person who may as well be pushing him into harm’s way is none other than his own mother.
Like last year’s “Loveless,” Tverdovsky’s tight, ultra-cynical contemporary Russian fable serves up an alarming portrait of negligent parenting on its surface, while sneaking a damning indictment of pervasive corruption and moral vacuousness in his home country between the lines — although in this case, it’s impossible to miss the subtext in what may as well be a quadruple-spaced, jumbo-font critique of the generation born under despot-elect Vladimir Putin. That’s because “Jumpman” wears both its style and political statement on its sleeve, making little effort to present these allegorical characters as real, relatable human beings.
Among his boarding-school mates (who routinely wrap him in rubber hose and squeeze to see how long he can take the pressure), Denis’ insensitivity to pain may be unique, though the director implies that such numbness is practically universal for those raised in the every-man-for-himself era of Putin, where role models routinely bend the system however they can to their benefit. Denis’ mother, Oksana (Anna Slyu), is no different, having abandoned him in a “baby hatch” as an infant, only to resurface with a reason his skills could come in handy.
At first, Denis is delighted to escape the orphanage and thrilled to get his own room, gorging on 16 years’ worth of belated birthday cake when they get to Oksana’s flat, although he soon learns the cost of staying there: Jump in front of cars, or get the boot. The first time Denis takes the leap, it’s a shock to behold as the spindly kid tosses himself into the oncoming windshield and cartwheels onto the hard pavement several yards back.
Writer-director Tverdovsky didn’t invent this scam (in fact, Nagisa Oshima’s social-realist masterpiece “Boy” depicts a less brutal but no less disturbing variation, featuring a 10-year-old Japanese kid), although he expands it to such a degree that the entire justice system seems to be in league with the jumpman: If the mark doesn’t pay, Denis lodges a complaint in court, where a police patrolman (Daniil Steklov), medical examiner, prosecutor, defense attorney, and judge all conspire to put pressure on the driver. Unflattering political implications aside, there are holes in the plan, which assumes that rich Russians would settle for a crooked, court-appointed lawyer, and that they wouldn’t have the wherewithal to appeal judgments made against them, but this is didactic fiction, not a documentary.
As it happens, the documentary-trained Tverdovsky originally considered making a nonfiction portrait of real-life “jumpmen,” although this original narrative (the director’s third, following “Corrections Class” and “Zoology,” all about outsiders struggling in an unforgiving world) allows him to do what a vérité movie couldn’t — namely, to stage the grisly accidents themselves, which he does on otherwise deserted black, wet streets, evoking a sleek, “The Dark Knight”-like atmosphere (although nauseatingly unsteady camerawork undermines DP Denis Alarcon-Ramirez’s beautifully lit long-take sequences).
The tradeoff is a certain across-the-board phoniness that can be distancing. Even though young Vlasenko holds our attention (especially as the collection of scars and bruises on his half-naked body grows and the character starts to experience pain for the first time), neither he nor any of his co-stars give particularly convincing performances. Such on-camera artificiality is heightened by clumsy dubbing after the fact — the kind one hears in low-budget animation, where lips don’t match, and every fake laugh shatters our suspension of disbelief.
When Denis plays the hose game, it’s an egregious pantomime at best: The kids on either side are clearly only pretending to pull, while Vlasenko merely looks constipated as he tries to convey the sensation of not feeling pain. Fortunately, “Jumpman” triggers in audiences the kind of concern Denis’ mother and her conspirators seem to lack, inspiring a mounting sense of outrage at the way these adults are exploiting a “loveless” kid incapable of feeling how badly they are hurting him. The most heart-breaking scene is one in which Denis seeks his mother’s approval, propping her up while she urinates in a public square.
In modern Russian society, this daring project preaches, there are those who jump in front of cars (willing accomplices who go along with the corruption) and those who order them to do so (reaping most of the reward while incurring none of the risk). Tverdovsky means this as a wake-up call, although he promises a combustible finale the likes of which the movie ultimately can’t deliver — since Denis is expendable, but the system is too rotten to reform.