It is a mixed blessing to be born in the aftermath of a war. On the one hand, you never have to experience the terror and suffering your parents did; on the other, you grow up with your own personal crises forever made to feel smaller by comparison. That, at least, is the frustration driving Bosnian teenage tearaway Arman, the nominal hero of Ines Tanović’s strident, unvarnished family drama “The Son”: Raised in relative peace and privilege, he’s doing his level best to become his own center of conflict. Thoughtfully addressing generational difference and burdensome post-war expectations, this well-acted, straightforward Sarajevo fest opener will hit hardest emotionally with domestic audiences, but should match or exceed the extensive festival footprint of Tanović’s 2015 debut “Our Everyday Life.”
That film, a similarly snappish and locally flavored household study, was Bosnia’s selection for the international feature Oscar, and it would not be a surprise to see Tanović (cousin of the country’s most celebrated auteur, Danis) repeat the feat here. Indeed, “The Son” is an indirect sequel of sorts to the 2015 film, which centered on a different branch of the same extended, well-to-do Sarajevo family under scrutiny here. Clearly, there’s enough baggage in this fictitious clan to fuel several features.
An initially cryptic opening gradually clears into a fractured family portrait, with 18-year-old Arman (Dino Bajrović, in his first feature) standing slightly apart from the outset. He’s introduced in the back of a taxi, being literally driven away from his strenuously well-mannered, middle-class home, as he heads to the airport on an independent quest: It emerges that Arman is adopted, and flying to meet his birth mother for the first time. If it feels a bit like the film is beginning with an ending, it proves a false one either way. She’s a no-show, sending the already insecure lad into a tailspin of rejection and rage — with his adoptive parents Jasna (Snežana Bogdanović) and Senad (Uliks Fehmiu) getting the brunt of it.
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Which is not to say they’re blameless victims of a problem child, as Tanović’s well-observed screenplay patiently unfolds a history of passive parental neglect — much of it involving their 14-year-old biological son Dado (excellent newcomer Hamza Ajdinović), whom Arman can’t help feeling gets preferential treatment from their folks. He doesn’t seem to be wrong, but at the same time, Dado isn’t constantly, abrasively lashing out at them. Was it ever thus? As it probes an uncertain but evidently thorny family history, “The Son” remains pleasingly ambiguous in its sympathies. Arman evidently wants for emotional support, but is also an aggressive narcissist; his parents are overwhelmed and exhausted, but perhaps expect undue gratitude from a child they feel they rescued. Caught in the middle is Dado, who would rather everyone took it down a notch and let him play video games in peace. Viewers feeling pummelled by the high-pitched, high-strung back-and-forth between Arman and his parents — the film’s driving rhetorical force — may well relate.
That these proceedings play out against the scenic but still battle-scarred backdrop of central Sarajevo — and, in one scene, the ghostly mountainside skeleton of its former Winter Olympics facilities — isn’t just a decorative detail. “The Son” deftly shows how, a quarter-century on from the horrific siege of the capital, the place is viewed quite differently by Generation Z and their wary, trauma-bearing parents: What still feels like liberation to the latter is a staid, inhibited status quo to those born in the ashes.
“The Son” occasionally verbalizes its subtext too bluntly — not much is left unsaid in its ongoing war of words — while Tanović’s direction, too, can be a little on the prosaic side. Mitja Ličen’s oft-handheld camerawork doggedly follows the dialogue, and there are few formal flourishes here to detract from the chattering, all-in gusto of the performances. In the title role, Bajrović is a force at once galvanizing and centrifugal, pushing against all the film’s more polite impulses. “I didn’t choose you,” he spits at his parents, almost determined not to be loved; “The Son” likewise makes us work to connect with its falling, flailing protagonist.