The Kid with the Binoculars

Karla Lončar of the Talent Press 2014 reviews Edward Berger’s family drama JACK, that features in the Berlinale Competition.

Ivo Pietzckler in JACK

What happens when a 10-year-old-boy is forced to hit the road, when all he wants to do is go home? Edward Berger’s family drama in Berlinale Competition, JACK, tells the story of one such boy, Jack (Ivo Pietzckler), who acts as a surrogate parent to his younger brother, Manuel (Georg Arms), due to the frequent absence of their mother (Luise Heyer), which leads social services to place him in a children’s facility. After a serious conflict with a fellow ward, he flees to his home but discovers the door closed. Soon he finds his brother but not their mother, and they begin searching for her all over the city, experiencing the worst few days of their lives.

JACK is shot with a hand-held camera, which follows the boy as he rambles across different spaces, often racing with time. The camera’s movement accentuates the inner restlessness of the child, who struggles with responsibilities a boy his age shouldn’t have to worry about – for example, fixing meals for his brother, or accidentally burning him in a hot bath. The film reflects the view of the protagonist by placing him close to the camera or occasionally surrounding him with the urban landscape, which highlights his feelings of loneliness and abandonment.

The film is reminiscent of the Dardenne brothers’ THE KID WITH A BIKE (LE GAMIN AU VÉLO, 2011). In both films, the characters survive hardships only to find that there are no happy endings in real life. Also, both children are emotionally tied to an object. The Dardennes’ Cyrill has his bike; Jack and his roommate from the children’s home have a pair of binoculars, which they use to watch a bird’s nest up in a tree. It’s a strong metaphor for their desire for the family security that is out of their reach.

Although it’s slower-paced in the second half, JACK is solidly directed, with impressive performances by Pietzcker and Arms – it’s easy to sympathize with them. But their mother is less convincing as a character. She’s depicted as an irresponsible person who nevertheless enjoys the presence of her children, albeit in a childish way; the film doesn’t really explain her motivation for leaving them. JACK is well crafted, but it’s more like a TV drama than an unforgettable Berlinale Competition film.