Berlinale 2018: Cobain

COBAIN still 30.jpg

Life is hard for young protagonists in European co-productions, like 15-year-old Cobain (Bas Keizer). He’s forced to take care of his mother Mia (Naomi Velissariou), who’s well into her third trimester and unable to kick her drug addiction. Despite getting assigned to a foster family, Cobain decides to make Mia his top priority, and soon finds himself working for a pimp named Wickmayer (Wim Opbrouck, looking like a second-rate Gerard Depardieu in his boxers and open bathrobe) in order to earn money. It’s the perfect mixture of tragedy and social realism, or a mixture just perfect enough for an international tour of the festival circuit.

Maybe I’m being a bit too hard on Cobain, but after years of enduring these tales of woe and misery geared for the arthouse there’s a breaking point. Like a photocopy of a photocopy of a photocopy, character traits, plot points, social environments, and other details appear as vague forms of things we’ve already seen before, and our general familiarity with these dramatic building blocks lets the filmmakers leave us to do all the work for them. Feast your eyes on the seemingly friendly pimp who turns cruel and predatory towards our teenage protagonist because it’s the point in the story where the third act has to begin; look at the prostitutes with hearts of gold who give our lead a sense of family until they fulfill their dramatic usefulness; and don’t forget about the complicated mother, whose mean and self-destructive behaviour towards her son are offset by one or two scenes where she shows some affection when she’s tired, high, or both.

Cobain inspires schematic thinking because it’s a schematic film. Every piece pops into place as it should, and all the dramatic beats play out as expected, with the only exception being the absurd direction the story takes. It’s hard enough to believe a 15-year-old could get a stash of methadone, put his strung-out pregnant mother on a motor scooter and drive her into the country to detox, but that’s just a warm-up for the bloody, ludicrous climax. I won’t spend any more time dwelling on it, because I’m afraid that by now I’ve put more thought into this than the filmmakers.