Director: Lena Stahl (Germany). Year of Release: 2021
Berlin, late at night / early in the morning, depending on which way you want to look at it. A young skateboarder is getting a lift home by hanging onto the back of a lorry. He has headphones on and is swigging from a bottle of God-knows-what The lorry slows down and turns right. The skateboarder carries going forwards. Straight into a car speeding in the opposite direction.
Jason (pronounced Yay-zon) is hospitalized. His injuries are serious – he can only walk with crutches and there is some serious internal damage that will stay with him for the rest of his life. The doctors recommend sending him to a rehabilitation clinic in Switzerland. It’s expensive, but there really isn’t anywhere else that is half so good with this sort of case.
Jason doesn’t look excited at the prospect, but his excitable mother Marlene is insistent. He can’t fly in his state, and there’s no way they can afford to send him by taxi or whatever. I’m not quite sure what the problem would be with him travelling by train, except that this would ruin the set up for a Road Trip movie. So, it’s settled, Marlene will drive Jason down to Switzerland, and they can stop off and visit her old friend Sarah on the way.
There’s something about road trip films. Some of my favourite films operate on the simple pretext of two ill-matched people having to travel from one end of the country to another – from Midnight Run, through Sightseers to Michael Winterbottom’s Butterfly Kiss. So there’s nothing wrong with the genre as such. Just if you don’t get it right, it’s just about two people sitting in a car and bickering. And that can get very boring very quickly.
Like the road movies mentioned above, Mein Sohn is a comedy. Or at least this is what I’ve read in press reports. I had a few difficulties identifying the bits that were supposed to be funny. I guess the scene with the hitchhiker who took off his shoes and played music that Jason loved and Marlene hated. He must have been funny because he was fat.
Or the scenes with Marlene’s friend Sarah. Sarah lives on a commune in the countryside with a load of hippie friends. To Marlene’s disgust, she is planning on having a home birth on her farm. There’s even some talk of eating placenta. I’m not really sure if we were supposed to be laughing at the dropouts who were old enough to know better or at Marlene’s reaction to them.
And then there’s Jason. I don’t really know how old Jason is supposed to be. I mean, I know the script says that he’s twenty, but the actor playing him is clearly much older than that. Despite this, he generally behaves like a petulant child. Maybe it’s a generational thing, but does anyone over the age of – to be generous – 12 really have ambitions to be a professional skateboarder when they grow up?
The way in which road movies are supposed to work is that the mismatched personalities get to understand each other better and they overcome their differences. And I guess that’s what’s also supposed to happen here. And yet there is no character development, no story arc. The nearest we get to learning about the characters is when Marlene complains that motherhood stopped her getting a job as a photographer in the USA.
None of this would have really mattered if Marlene and Jason, or indeed any of the incidental characters, were people we care about. Now, I must admit, that German media personality Anke Engelke is very believable as Marlene, and her future film appearances could be worth seeing. But hopefully, next time she’ll play someone who is a bit more interesting.
There are films in which nothing happens, and that’s what makes them so enjoyable. And there are other films in which nothing happens, and you just wonder what the point of it wall was. Marlene and Jason understand themselves a little bit better at the end, but not really, though seeing as I couldn’t bring myself to care about either of them, that wasn’t a real problem as such.
Some of the critics seem to have liked it, though.