The 37th Portland International Film Festival runs this year from February 6th to the 25th. They’re screening 104 feature films and 24 shorts across those two weeks from countries as diverse as Afghanistan, Iceland, Nepal, and Taiwan. Check out the official site for tickets and/or more details.
Our seventh trio of PIFF films all hail from the same region of Europe and all feature kids fusing fantasy and reality to grow up and join genre stories usually reserved for adults.
Antboy sees a boy turned into a superhero after being bitten by a special insect, but the fun he has fighting crime is threatened by the arrival of an equally powerful villain. The Tough Guys follows another boy who fancies himself a superhero but lacks anything resembling a super power. His efforts to help others lead to some tough consequences for himself. Lastly, The Zigzag Kid bypasses the comic book stuff all together in favor of a boy setting off on an adventure in an effort to emulate his cop father and discover the truth of his dead mother.
Keep reading for capsule reviews of Antboy, The Tough Guys, and The Zigzag Kid, and follow all of our coverage here.
Pelle (Oscar Dietz) is a shy kid, small for his age, and crushing hard on the most popular girl in class. Trouble continues when he tries to help a kid being bullied and instead ends up chased into an abandoned yard, but it’s there where he’s bitten by a genetically modified ant. Soon he’s discovering new abilities like super strength, wall climbing, and highly acidic pee, and with the help of his friend Wilhelm he sets out to fight crime. It all goes fairly easy too until a villain calling himself The Flea shows up on the scene.
This is the slightest of the three films I’m covering today, but it’s still good fun. It’s also the only one to fully embrace the superhero motifs from the origin story to the sidekick to the super-villain. In addition to comic panel styled opening credits, the movie occasionally breaks to show events in hand-drawn form. We even get some word balloons like “kapow” and “wham” and the like, and while things get rough for Antboy at one point things never feel dangerous or heavy.
It’s a goofy movie to be sure, but Dietz makes for an appealing hero with his combination of charm and gung-ho attitude. The scene where he tries on different possible costumes is delightful and shows him as fully invested in the silly fun. The script is a bit sloppy at times, part of the reason why it all feels so slight, and it makes little effort to offer depth to the story or characters beyond the necessary details and eventual message. There’s an age sweet spot for kids to enjoy this one as those too young will grow bored by the stretches between action and too old will be starved for bigger set-pieces.
Antboy has already screened.
The Tough Guys (Norway)
Modulf is a bit of a superhero in that stops his school’s bullies from harassing and hurting other kids by redirecting their attention toward himself. His dad is dead, but a hero to Modulf, so he does this because he knows his old man would be proud and it’s the right thing to do. Things change when Lise, a new girl at school, points out that while he’s helping others he himself is still being bullied. She teaches him to fight back, and together they try to put an end to bullying all together.
This is a deceptively light comedy (complete with comic book-style opening credits) that plays like a mix of pure laugher and amateur afterschool special, but the wisdom within slowly grows until the film reveals itself as a smart and affecting take on a serious subject. Sondre Blakstad Henriksen, like most of the kids here, is clearly new to acting, but his goofy style catches on and he delivers with enthusiasm and emotion late in the film. Like Modulf, Sondre cares, and that goes a long way in making viewers embrace the character.
The Weinsteins can keep their inept Bully doc, and instead it’s this film that should be shown to students, teachers, and parents alike, many of whom are too oblivious to even know when bullying is happening under their noses (something this film points out).”Imagine if everyone who got picked on fought back,” says Modulf at one point, “we’d up up with chaos!” That’s the mentality of too many people, but while he has the heart and the right idea, Lise and the film recognize that the best way to fight bullying is by knowing how to fight bullies.
The Tough Guys screens 2/17 at 2:30p. Buy tickets here.
The Zigzag Kid (Netherlands)
Nono is the son of Netherlands’ greatest police inspectors, but his aspirations to follow in his dad’s footsteps collide with his over-active imagination on a daily basis. One stunt too many sees him shipped off to his boring uncle, but before he gets there he falls into an adventure involving a master criminal and the mystery of Nono’s dead mother.
It’s foreign films like this that makes it clear how badly Hollywood is failing our own children. The story plays a bit like a kid’s version of a European mystery as Nono travels from Denmark to Nice and elsewhere, and it never feels phony. When we see Nono walking on the exterior platform of a moving train, it’s really happening, and the events that play out aren’t heightened for manic viewers, they’re legit. Like The Tough Guys above, this one again finds a (remarkably similar) seriousness in the third act that earns real emotion, and it’s the kind of thing our own kids films would never try.
It helps too that the cast is rock solid from young Thomas Simon in the lead role to recognizable pros like Isabella Rossellini and Burghart Klaussner. They all play it sincerely but with an obvious sense of fun as well, and the result is a film that’s allowed to be carefree and loose while approaching some serious topics. It’s a fun adventure more than anything else, and it succeeds wonderfully.
The Zigzag Kid screens 2/23 at 10:00a. Buy tickets here.
PIFF 37 runs 2/6 – 2/22