Sometimes you want a film to carry you out of the cinema feeling like nothing in life matters. Nullpunkt, the new Estonian co-production from Allfilm and ERR, does just that. There was a blizzard blowing outside, but it didn't register after watching this wonderful film, which will also be shown as a full-length television series on ETV in January.
The story begins with Johannes, played beautifully by Märt Pius, resembling the young Warren Clarke and also bringing some of the late character actor's gruff directness to the schoolboy. He is a stoic young everyman, wrongly accused of sticking a note reading "Child-Killer" on the door of his former friend, Kristiina, who had had an abortion. Barely has this incident happened when Johannes is being driven by his father to live in his clinically-depressed mother's apartment in the Lasnamäe district of Tallinn, an area which is often maligned, but is shown in Nullpunkt as a place where there is violence, but also genuine humor and a kind of friendship forged in common understanding.
Throughout the film, Johannes is engaged in a battle of wits with his mother, who loves him but does not understand him, and seems to be losing her grip on life. "I think what grabbed me the most at first was the main character’s relationship with his mother. These scenes, their little battles that occur throughout the novel felt very vivid and intense, it was interesting to see how a quarrel can start from a trivial thing, and their conflict doesn’t get resolved because they’re not dealing with the underlying issues," explained the film's writer Margit Keerdo-Dawson when asked why she was drawn to adapting Margus Karu's 2010 novel.
Johannes's sister, who hints at also suffering from depression, is visible only on Skype calls, having escaped her mother and moved to Thailand. She does not seem to listen to her brother any more than the other characters do. Keerdo-Dawson wanted to get across a lack of communication which she sensed in the novel. "Johannes is very sincere and open with the reader while the characters around him often don’t even try to understand his point of view," she said.
Johannes is a product of his time - outwardly tough, a man of few words save for the odd murmur, but below the surface deep-thinking and sensitive. A poet, his verse wins him a scholarship to Tallinn's fictitious Swedish School, seemingly a kind of hybrid of the real-life French School and the Estonian Business School (EBS) - a place for Estonian society's elite to be shaped for the future. Johannes's wayward father is proud of his son's poetry, but does not understand why he would write in English - reflecting the skepticism of many of his generation.
It is at the Swedish School that Johannes encounters Estonian class prejudice for the first time, but also the benefits of an elite education. The school, as shown in the film, is spotless - not a chair unvarnished, not a winter boot out of line in the hallway - a place which we are told later in exposition is the breeding-ground for Prime Ministers, entrepreneurs and other great-and-good people.
Keerdo-Dawson said, in her view, Johannes's struggles are due to his sincerity. "For me, the main character’s dilemma is a struggle between trying to fit in while remaining his true self; he never wants to pretend to be something he’s not even if that would help him get along with others. When Johannes first goes to the new school no one really has a chance to get to know the real 'him' before things start going wrong."
The most snobbish of Johannes's schoolmates, such as the spoiled Paula (a conniving character, in which role Brigitte Susanne Hunt seems to have great fun), refuse to have anything to do with the upstart, viewing him as a kind of Estonian version of trailer-trash. Others, like the thoughtful but entitled Liisa (Liina Kolde) make a token attempt to understand the motives below the stereotype, before rumor and hearsay turn them against him. As Keerdo-Dawson explained, class is not the primary issue, "if we’re talking about the central conflict, then Johannes is not rejected because of class but because of a misunderstanding, and in that sense social class is still not a driving issue in the story."
Bianka (Saara Kadak) is the only character with a genuine wish to form her own opinion and see beyond the misunderstanding - but even she struggles to defend her new friend, due to peer-pressure. People like the rich-kid characters really do exist in real life, making the viewer support Johannes even more as a consequence.
There are problematic elements to the film. Johannes inhabits a kind of parallel Lasnamäe (in reality an area inhabited predominantly by ethnic Russian Estonians), where only Estonian is spoken, whether by young people, shop assistants, security guards or tramps searching bins. In fact, there seem to be no Russian-Estonians, expats, or anyone of mixed race in the film. Do no Estonian-speaking ethnic Russians or Ukrainians attend this elite school? If not, why not? Perhaps they haven't won a poetry scholarship. One wonders if there could be an interesting film made about their progress at the same school.
There is also a scene where Johannes takes a picture of a young gay couple kissing at school, threatening to share online the picture of one of the boys, who is in turn bullying him, if he does not change his ways, before pushing him to the ground and telling him to be polite. This appears to send the message that homophobic bullying is okay, as long as the bully is himself being bullied. It's quite ironic that a story ostensibly about overcoming prejudice should itself unquestioningly show prejudice towards two gay people. The film is, however, the viewpoint of one schoolboy, whose character feels more real with such obvious flaws.
As mentioned, Johannes is an everyman. In the wrong hands, the character could have been boring, but Keerdo-Dawson's vibrant writing, combined with Pius's pulsating powder-keg of a performance, gave the boy relatable fears, vices and flaws. Arguments inflame from longstanding tensions, the fight scenes, which seem crunchingly real, stem from arrogance, bitterness and fear. Not a pause is out of place, not an expression overplayed - this is a great film because of the realism present in its writing and acting.
The story this brought back most memories of was Tom Brown's Schooldays, George MacDonald Fraser's book (later turned into many films) about a boy overcoming terrible bullying and a clash of cultures at an elite school in England. However this is a classic coming-of-age story fueled by Viru Valge and cheap fruit punch - Tom Brown's Schooldays as if rebooted by anarchic young-adult novelist Melvin Burgess. That's intended as the highest compliment. Go and see this almost-perfect, nuanced and ultimately uplifting film, while you can.