At a surprise party for his daughter, a randy Italian homeowner studies a neighbor’s wife through the sliding glass door and describes all the ways he’d like to violate her. In the bathroom, his 12-year-old son sits with his best friend, studying the hardcore porn sites listed in the browsing history of Dad’s cellphone. A few days earlier and a couple doors down, a pregnant teen senses the prepubescent kid’s sexual curiosity and taunts him with a series of increasingly provocative acts. For example, when he offers her a cookie, she exposes a breast and gives a whole new meaning to “Got milk?”
Innocence is not a concept to be found in the D’Innocenzo Brothers’ cinematic oeuvre, which consists of two films so far: “Boys Cry” and “Bad Tales,” both of which forgo the notion of childhood as a state of uncorrupted naivete. Rather, in the Italian siblings’ deeply cynically, Todd Solondz-ian worldview, humans are animals — an untamed snarl of impulses, emotions and predatory self-interest — and children are perhaps the least predictable of all, lacking an innate moral center and therefore susceptible to the influence of others.
It’s a grim view dramatized in Fabio and Damiano D’Innocenzo’s sleek 2018 debut, “Boys Cry” — a largely nocturnal, fluorescent-lit cautionary tale in which two unfledged gangsters turn a fatal hit-and-run into an audition for a life of crime — and one that’s passed like a case of head lice to the white-picket sanctuary in their sun-crisped sophomore feature.
The duo’s off-putting characters are distinctly Italian, while the milieu may well have been lifted from American independent cinema of the late 1990s — movies like “The Virgin Suicides” and “Happiness” — or literature from many decades earlier, à la James Agee’s “Knoxville: Summer of 1915” or (per the press notes) Edgar Lee Masters’ “Spoon River Anthology.” The D’Innocenzos are photographers and poets by training, steering by intuition as they adapt to filmmaking, and given their background, the gallery work of David Lynch and Gregory Crewdson was probably an influence as well. In any case, the common theme seems to be a desire to explore the termites and toxic masculinity swarming behind the glossy facade of suburban bliss.
Drowning in style but shallow in substance, “Bad Tales” takes place in an unnamed small town over the course of a summer in which days bleed together, a blur of pool parties and water-balloon fights and driving lessons. The movie’s enigmatic narration references a “family tragedy,” but is a little too coy for audiences to untangle the point of this downer fable — confusingly described as being “inspired by a true story” that was “inspired by a lie” that was “not very inspired” in the first place.
Middle school has just ended for well-dressed Dennis (Tommaso di Cola) and relatively grimy Geremia (Justin Korovkin). Whoever’s narrating says he’s already done the summer reading but withholds that there’s another extracurricular assignment that’ll keep the kids busy till school starts again — one we won’t discover until the cops do quite late in the film. In the meantime, the kids come off as silent and far more naive than they actually are, studying the adults for clues on what it means to be a man.
When Geremia catches measles, his dad arranges for the boy to pass the disease on to a female classmate, instructing the boy where to find the condoms, in case he needs them. Dennis’ father, Bruno (Elio Germano), doesn’t even seem to notice what’s going on with his son, celebrating his straight-A report card without realizing the more troubling lessons the young man is silently absorbing from his own behavior. In one scene, Dennis chokes on a morsel of steak, and Bruno doesn’t know how to deliver the Heimlich maneuver, making for an embarrassing scene. “Do you see what you did?” his otherwise complacent mom (Barbara Chichiarelli) scolds. “You made your dad cry.”
Such vignettes are upsetting to watch, though the D’Innocenzo Brothers depict them with a freshness that we feel compelled to watch … until their pattern of reductive negativity grows wearying. As “Bad Tales” unfolds, it becomes clear that they are serving up pessimistic impressions of childhood with little sense of continuity. Dennis buys a metal detector from a yard sale but never uses it; Geremia watches his German shepherd carted off to be put down but never refers to the incident; a neighbor named Ada (Laura Borgioli) arranges to lose her virginity, then disappears from the film.
If these incidents are warping the kids, the impact is as ambiguous as the time period — ostensibly the 1980s or ’90s, judging by costumes and home furnishings, although anachronistic camera phones suggest a more contemporary setting. As for the adults, on more than one occasion, the D’Innocenzos stick their camera right up against one of the actors’ teeth, rendering them grotesque and gargoyle-like. So, while cinematographer Paolo Carnera lovingly captures the look and feel of an idyllic Italian summer, the film’s characters remain almost universally unpleasant. For a tragedy to register as tragic, we typically have to feel some emotional connection to the victim(s), whereas “Bad Tales” lacks a clear point of view, surveying all of its characters with a degree of contempt.