Did you know you can bring a tea-dunked fly back from the verge of drowning by covering it in warming, drying cigarette ash? Fifteen-year-old Mára (Tomáš Mrvík) does — it’s a little bit of useless lore he picked up from his hero-worshipped grandfather. He demonstrates as much to the flinty police interrogator (Lenka Vlasáková) who brings him into custody when his quixotic journey in a stolen Audi, with fellow runaway Heduš (Jan František Uher) riding literal shotgun (it’s ok, it only fires pellets) comes to an abrupt halt, in a grey town on the other side of the Czech Republic from where they started out.
Slovenian-born, FAMU-educated director Olmo Omerzu never overworks the metaphor, but the “Winter Flies” that buzz lethargically on windowsills throughout his third feature are, like the boys, a nuisance, but there’s something admirable about their tenacity. They come to stand for all the threatened things that find a way hang on in there past their expiration date, maybe even to flourish in adversity. They’re like the friendship that blooms between Mára, a tough-talking teen rebel and the overweight, sweetly dorky Heduš, hulkingly clad in shaggy camo that gives him the silhouette of a sasquatch. Or like the goodness that still lives on underneath Mára’s shellacked layers of trash-talking cool, and the childish cheek-dimple that contradicts his skinhead scowl.
DP Lukáš Milota frames the action impeccably, with hard, desaturated imagery never romancing the dismal, drizzly roadside locations, while still having a sullen beauty that also complements its moments of deadpan humor. And Omerzu and editor Jana Vlčková put the cross-cutting structure to good use by delivering some lovely transitions, as when we cut from Mára’s ailing grandfather to the aforementioned Lazarus fly struggling back to life, or from Mára’s proud assertion that he could happily live up a tree for three years, to a shot of the boys nestled amongst some branches using the sights on Hedus’ toy gun as binoculars. But as accomplished as the filmmaking is (the clever, modern-classical score from Šimon Holý, Monika Midriaková, and Paweł Szamburski also deserves mention), it’s the performances that stay with you, and the two young first-time-actor leads are a revelation. Especially Mrvík, who carries the whole film on his hunched, wary shoulders and in a mutable expression that teeters between innocence and cynicism.
There’s a background of parental neglect that is hinted at though never shown. Instead, we spend the whole film on this little adventure with the two boys, and observe all the ways it differs from the aggrandized account Mára gives the police officer. Heduš fantasizes about joining the French Foreign Legion, and consults his more worldly friend about girls. In reply, Mára feeds him tall tales of outlandish sexual exploits, but when they pick up a pretty young hitchhiker (Eliška Křenková), they’re the ones who end up sleeping on the cold ground while she gets the car. They scorn the man who tries to sell them a scruffy-looking dog, but dive into freezing waters to save the mutt thereafter. And Mára’s resolve not to cooperate with the authorities does eventually crumble, but only when his devotion to his grandfather is cruelly manipulated. There are moments of magic and moments of mayhem, but the emotional effect of this you-and-me-against-the-world story is a piercingly bittersweet melancholy that anyone ever has to grow up, when their childish selves are so much better people than the adults they’ll likely become.
The “young boys bond on a mission to nowhere” subgenre already has its own classics (“Stand By Me” being the benchmark) and a fresh crop of coming-of-age stories arrives every year like daffodils. But while “Winter Flies” might not tell us anything new, it relates its old story with a vivid specificity and a beguiling sense of mischief that makes it feel fresh. And for a film in which the occasional small miracle does occur, and a heartwarming odd-couple friendship springs up almost in spite of itself, it is gratifyingly unsentimental. Other, luckier kids might be crowned kings of summer, but Mára and Heduš get to be the unlikely lords of winter, and all the survivor creatures that find a way to stay warm in the cold.