Dir. Andreas Arnstedt, Germany
By Sarah Leventer
The Dispensables is a beautifully shot family drama, reminiscent in look and tone of Andrei Zvyagintsev’s The Return. Based on a true story, the film follows 11-year-old Jacob (Oskar Böckelmann) as he tries to hide a devastating secret about his father, Jürgen (André Hennicke), and opens as a drunk Jürgen publicly defaces a German political campaign poster with an axe. This opening suggests that, also like The Return, The Dispensables is an intensely personal story with connections to a much longer, complicated national history, another aspect that sets it apart from the air-brushed perfection of Hollywood summer blockbusters of late. However, it is worth noting that The Dispensables’ nationalistic tone is subtle and understated, meaning references to Germany’s past are there for those who choose to see them, but majoring in German is not a prerequisite to appreciate the film.
Fitting its semi-autobiographical content, The Dispensables is told in first-person so the audience gets to experience the world as Jacob does. While lying beside his father, Jacob looks up lights that remind him of a carnival, and flashes back to a date with his girlfriend, Hannah (Kathi Hahn); this is one of many instances when Jacob’s memories erupt (often unexpectedly) into the present-day. Moments like these are an interesting comment on the way memories work in life, coming unexpectedly and often “out of order,” and also give insight into Jacob’s current situation in a subtle, artful way. As Jacob snaps out from the memory of the carnival, for instance, the audience realizes that, because of the man lying beside him, this date will be the last carefree memory he’ll have for a very long time.
Andreas Arnstedt treats the children who anchor his film with a great deal of respect and authenticity. The director successfully resists the urge to infantilize his protagonists though they don’t sound straight off the set of Dawson’s Creek either. Jacob and Hannah are at once thoughtful, considerate and thoroughly childlike—they are also wiser than adults give them credit for, another aspect that makes watching the world from their perspective a uniquely worthwhile experience: especially compared to their precocious or alternatively 20-somethings-playing-a-14-year-old Hollywood counterparts.
In addition to Hannah, Jacob’s world is populated by compelling characters like his grandmother, Rosemarie, (Ingeborg Westphal) the only truly reliable adult in his life, Mr. Rott (Mathieu Carrière), an elderly neighbor who is a haunting reminder of Germany’s past and Jacob’s only other friend, and Jacob’s parents, Jürgen and Silke (Steffi Kühnert). Demonstrating a wisdom few first-time directors have, Arnstedt shows both the loving and damaging sides of Jacob’s parents, giving their performances the same meaningful complexity as the rest of his film.
To buy tickets to the U.S. premier of The Dispensables, go to: https://new-hope-film-festival-ltd.ticketleap.com