Boudewijn Koole’s “Kauwboy”, the Netherland’s Official Oscar submission, is, in it’s gentle way, one of the most memorable of the 2012 submissions. The small-scale film is perfect in tone.
“Kauwboy” won the European Film Awards Discovery Fipresci Award and two prizes at Berlinale 2012: Best first Feature and Grand Prix of the Deutsches Kinderhilfwer” Award and almost 20 awards worldwide.
The Dutch have been coming on strong for a while. Martin Koolhoven’s “Winter in Wartime”, the 2010 submission, another solid sender, (distributed by Sony Classics in the US) also featured a boy protagonist.
The sensitive tale, akin to Loache’s “Kes” and the youth classic “The Yearling”, invites us into the life of latch key kid Jojo (Rick Lens), his harsh father Ronald (Loek Peters), and the Jackdaw he adopts, hides and trains, without his father knowledge.
Gruff Ronald was once a singer, accompanying his singer wife, but now he holds down a security job. We suspect more than his work has coarsened his demeanor.
Jojo’s folk-singer mom July (Ricky Koole) whose pictures and cd’s haunt both husband and son, seems to be away on an extended stay. His school- mates taunt him, sensing the indefensible loner. Bringing the Jackdaw to school gains him friends, especially older Yenthe (Susan Radder)m his water polo team mate.
Jojo keeps house for his brutish dad. The undemonstrative man, who grabs a beer as soon as he walks in, is given to sudden outbursts. Jojo waits in his room till the tantrums finish. After one, he inspects the damage; cleaning up the spaghetti-draped walls before Dad comes back, he mutters,”That’s not so bad”.
The film begins with their morning ritual: Jojo bounds out of the house and races through fields to perch on an overpass, beating his father who’s driving to work. It’s a glimpse at happier times.
Lens, a non-pro actor discovered at the last minute, is a resourceful character, easily commanding our attention. Boudewijn Koole, in a recent Q & A, marked it down to his A.D.D. hyper-activity. (Which makes you wonder if Brando, famous for including everything around him in his spontaneous takes, would have suffered the same diagnosis if he were growing up today.)
Both Lens and Loek Peters serve up riveting performances that fill the tiny vessel to the brim with repressed emotion and flashes of rage, and in Lens’ case, joy. The story is their story, and the mother, the bird and Jojo’s girlfriend are supporting characters.
Like Dorota Kedzierzawska, whose brilliant Polish films often feature kid protagonists, Koole used extensive close ups to cocoon us in Jojo’s world. Nothing else intrudes. Yet he glories in the infrequent wide composition, like Jojo’s triumphant race across the fields or the sequence when he teaches the Daw new tricks. Many current directors, working with micro budgets, rely on close-ups, but rarely with Koole’s purpose and sensitivitiy.
Writer-director Koole’s first feature never stumbles. As a scriptwriter, Koole worked before with editor Gys Zevenbergen. Co-writer Jolein Laarman turns in a script rich with sub-text. Koole, editor Zevenbergen and DP Daniël Bouquet’s extensive doc background contributes to the poetic realistic style.
Ken Loach and Kedzierzawska (” Wrony”, “Jestem”) set a high bar in youth films, and filmmakers like Koole, the Dardennes (“Boy With A Bike”) and Ursula Meier (“Sister”- shortlisted for this year’s Foreign Language Oscar) have followed their lead, mining the world of the neglected child for a microcosmic reflection of modern day Social woes. Add Saul Dibb’s 2004 “Bullet Boy” to that list.
When Jojo finds the Jackdaw on the ground he tries to put it back in the nest, but the mother bird attacks him. Holding his orphan bird up he points it like a gun, then takes the bird, named “Jack”, on a tour of his new home. “That’s where mother used to sleep” he says. The past tense is a clue.
Jojo call his mother daily, and paints a rosy picture of his life with dad. But it’s far from rosy. In one clever scene, Ronald and Jojo tussle. Jojo starts hitting at his father like a bear cab, but soon he’s a furious fighting machine, discharging unexplained rage.
Ronald comes home, walled off by his own feelings, and plunks down in front of a Nature program with a beer. Jojo tries to ask him indirectly if he can keep the bird and gets a lecture.
He steals a library book about Daws. “Take care of a Jackdaw and you’ll have a friend for life”; music to the ears of the lonely kid. Jack becomes his child, a replacement for his mother and his chick magnet, drawing the attention of Yenthe. They start hanging out after school with Jack. For Jojo, it’s idyllic basking in her off-hand affection. In one scene, he saves her gum and pops it in his mouth, as if he’s getting to “first base.” “The bravest male gets the prettiest female”, the book explains, and Jojo wants pretty Yenthe, who’s both a pal and a mother figure.
Newly happy, Jojo scores a point at the game. By the time excited Jojo tells his dad it’s become five points. “Go to your room “, his moody father shouts and Jojo weathers the emotional storm. Calling mom he confides he won “all eight points.”
Eventually Ronald finds the bird and makes him free him, warning Jojo that the bird “will think you’re its mother. It needs to learn about cars and dogs. “
Furious, Jojo acts out at swim practice and Ronald’s called in for a meeting. Ronald tries harder to bond with his son over dinner, but they fight when Jojo begs to make a birthday cake to celebrate absent July’s birthday and dad refuses. It’s a bad night for both, Jojo comforts himself listening to his mom’s music. Dad sits, shell shocked, in the truck and takes Jojo on an out of control midnight ride.
Jack comes back and Jojo hides him in a better place. Taking his dad’s advice literally, Jojo tries to teach him how to look both ways before crossing the street.
“Jackdaws are always together. Even if one is ili, the other stays.” Jojo stand outside Yenthe’s house watching Yenthe with her mother, through the window, trying to remember what having a mother was like.
After he teaches Jack to fly, Yenthe and Jojo celebrate. Jack has become their child. They spend idyllic afternoons playing hide and seek in tall grasses, until Yenthe breaks the spell “I know about your mother. She’s dead”, and Jojo slaps her-twice.
Freeze frames illustrate Jojo’s one-man revolution against death. Angrier and angrier, Jojo defies his life. He decorates the house and bakes the cake and refuses to stop sing “Happy Birthday to Mama”, no matter what his worried father says. Jack flutters into the room and Ronald sets him loose.
Frantic Jojo looks for his friend and their reunion ends with Jack’s inevitable death. Mourning his bird closes the circle and lets Jojo and dad finally grieve for his mother. Burying the bird is another scene that moves with its unadorned realism. A MUST SEE (Reviewed EFP screenings LA.)