“Coming of age” is a demure, blushing phrase and so quite unsuited to the fat lips and cracked foreheads of Melanie Waelde’s visceral, exposed-nerve debut. And yet, loosely speaking, it’s what “Naked Animals” tracks: a short, painful, hesitant phase in the lives of five wild teenagers living largely without adult supervision. In a provincial nowhere, geographically near Berlin but spiritually half a galaxy away, the rituals that have evolved among this little wolfpack are so incomprehensible to outsiders as to make them seem like aliens, giving Waelde’s unmistakably personal film the feel of a particularly bruising work of vaguely dystopian ethnography.
Caged into the square frames of Fion Mutert’s punchy, hotheaded camerawork, the focus of the film, which is far stronger in its charismatic, contradictory characterizations than in plot, is Katja (Marie Tragousti). She is a troubled young woman whose main outlet, as she faces down the gun barrel of the end of high school and the imminence of change, is jiu-jitsu, which she both practices and teaches, alongside her beefy friend Sascha (Sammy Scheuritzel). They seem at first to be a couple, and one in which we initially fear for Katja, when a minor argument leads to Sascha slamming her head into a bank of lockers. But when the nurse who patches her up pushes a leaflet about domestic abuse into her hand, Katja can barely disguise her hilarity. Later, we will understand why: All of her interactions with Sascha are characterized by physical violence, usually instigated by Katja herself.
By that stage, we’ve already met the rest of her tribe of misfits. There’s pretty Laila (Luna Schaller), who hangs with this crew partly to escape a dysfunctional relationship with her manipulative mother; there’s the cocky but relatively well-adjusted Schöller (Paul Michael Stiehler); and there’s Benni (Michelangelo Fortuzzi), the film’s would-be Byron, a dyspeptic depressive who appears to have no parental influence whatsoever, and in whose apartment the gang tend to congregate. It’s partly to keep watch over Benni, as the most fragile of the group — if not necessarily the most screwed up — but also it’s the one place they can run according to their own arcane rules, often falling asleep on top of one another, bathing together and even doing what in other circles might be called flirting. It’s just that here, they’re all so hopelessly entwined with one another’s secrets and traumas, it’s like an unspoken secret language between them, and so the chances of even the most suggestive of exchanges leading to anything as straightforward as a romantic relationship are slim.
Episodes unfurl one after the other. Katja’s fraught home life is briefly sketched out, leaving us to infer some sort of abuse or scarring incident. Schöller hits on Katja, even though he’s quasi-officially with Laila. This moment does give us some idea of Katja’s attitude to sex (spoiler: it’s not uncomplicated), and just how much the physicality of jiu-jitsu and the strange rutting wrestling matches she has with Sascha are a way to channel the onrush of hormonal adulthood into what is, for her, an emotionally safer, if literally bloodier avenue. In this coming-of-age, age is coming for Katja, and like the wild animal she is, she is backed into a corner, hackles raised, fangs bared, looking for the tiniest opportunity for escape.
Benni has a breakdown, which seems to mark a sort of natural endpoint for this tight-knit gang’s comforting if deeply unhealthy co-dependency. But Waelde’s screenplay fails to fully capitalize on that dramatic potential, and so it becomes just another kink in the lines of loyalty and interdependence that have been so tangled from the outset, that from an onlooker’s perspective, little materially changes. This can make “Naked Animals” a frustrating watch even at a slender 83 minutes. But there is also an intimate, improvisational authenticity to the performances and to the chemistry between the young cast that creates its own staticky fascination. Tragousti in particular is impressive, and so convinced of her paradoxical, psychologically incomprehensible character’s reality, she makes us believe in Katja too, though her behavior gives us little consistency to cling to.
In a similar way, the film convinces us of the arrival of an excitingly uncompromised, offbeat talent in Waelde, while never wholly coalescing into a satisfying narrative. Rather like Katja’s beloved sport, “Naked Animals” plays as a series of scuffles that are made up of holds and pins and locks: They require immense skill and strength, and for every muscle to vibrate at the very limit of its capacity, every sinew to sing with stress, yet from the outside it can look a lot like inertia.