It doesn’t take a lot to amaze the internet these days, and so it recently proved on New Year’s Day 2018. After the clock struck 12, a flurry of exclamatory tweets and minor news articles ensued, all noting the allegedly mind-blowing fact that, as of that day, the world held no remaining children — give or take your definition of that word — with 20th-century birth dates. If you’d like the point more solemnly underscored for you, Brazilian director Aly Muritiba’s sincere, tough-minded youth-in-crisis drama “Rust” does the job. Though far from the first film on the perils to which a generation reared on social media and smartphones is vulnerable, this bisected anatomy of a high-school scandal is among the most demoralized: The iridescent hues of Rui Poças’s stylized lensing may occasionally pop from the screen, but the future “Rust” paints for its young characters isn’t the brightest.
It comes as little surprise to learn that Muritiba, whose debut feature “To My Beloved” made an impression on the international festival circuit in 2015, is both a former high school teacher and a father to a teen: “Rust” isn’t empty hand-wringing, but characterized by genuine concern for, and empathy with, the children under its watch. Still, its stern cautionary tale of young lives ruptured or ruined by technology and despoiled privacy doesn’t carve out especially striking insights on a subject already heavily investigated by films ranging from commercial horror (“Unfriended”) to arthouse provocation (“After Lucia”). That sense of familiarity could curb “Rust’s” international prospects following its Sundance unveiling, though festivals will be accommodating.
“Rust” is most striking for its sharp midpoint pivot in terms of both style and point of view, disorientingly switching protagonists as the film traces the setup and aftermath of a shocking school incident. Opening on a fluorescent aquarium-set sequence, complete with visions of mermaids, there’s a streak of on-edge dreaminess to its first half: The film chiefly takes the perspective of Tatiana (affecting newcomer Tiffanny Dopke), a happy, sociable 16-year-old who romantically bonds with Renet (Giovanni de Lorenzi), a seemingly sensitive but troubled schoolmate, over the course of a weekend class trip. Amid the revelry, she loses her cellphone, which is no more than an annoyance until Monday, whereupon she learns that a private video from the device — in which she has sex with an ex-boyfriend — has leaked and spread like wildfire through the school.
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It’s a nightmare scenario more common in today’s classrooms than most parents would like to imagine, and Muritiba, who penned the screenplay with feature novice Jessica Candal, chronicles the repercussions of peer bullying and misogynistic shaming in painful, plausible detail. The fallout of the grim situation, however, is carried by Renet, as the film’s second half abruptly (and for reasons that take time to reveal themselves) places his inner turmoil front and center. As the once-flamboyant palette retreats into shaded, morose earth tones that match the film’s otherwise cryptic title, “Rust” drifts into the boy’s unhappy home life, probing the marital discord between his estranged mother (Clarissa Kiste) and his protective father (Enrique Diaz), a teacher at the school. Though this oblique digression gradually makes its way back to the matter of hand, not all viewers will have patience for the film’s diffuse approach to adolescent trauma.
Where many a film on this subject has attempted to replicate the scuzzy authenticity of teens’ own communication and video devices, “Rust” largely evades a slice-of-life aesthetic. Pocas, the virtuoso Portuguese d.p. behind “Tabu,” “The Ornithologist” and Lucrecia Martel’s recent “Zama,” doesn’t shy from saturated pools of radioactive color or stark, eerie skeletons of shadow; it’s when only Renet’s warring parents are on screen (as in one painstakingly extended from-the-backseat take) that the film is at its most pointedly drab. Elsewhere, it’s as if “Rust” is shot through the eyes of its young protagonists, their emotional surges bigger and brighter and darker than they might appear from the outside.