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Torsten C. Fischer
Klaus J. Behrendt,
Gabriela Maria Schmeide
Grim, occasionally brutalizing coming-of-age story lacks focus and a decisive identity
The Danish "Pretty Boy", being made available on DVD for the first time 12 years after it's original release, tells the story of another disillusioned modern teenage youth, this time a 13-year-old male hustler roaming the nocturnal streets of Copenhagen. Supposedly fleeing a dysfunctional home life and spending his nights hoping beds to find a place to stay, Nick (Christian Tadfurp) lives a transient and grimly solitary lifestyle as he tries to survive amidst the cold and unwelcoming world he's entered into.
Clearly yearning for a father figure, Nick grows smitten with one of his middle-age suitors, the carefully closeted Ralph (Stig Hoffmeyer), an Astronomist who shares Nick's fascination with the stars. Ralph may be his possible savior, but when he tremulously kicks him out when his girlfriend returns, Nick soon views the cowardly Ralph with a heartbroken contempt.
With nowhere else to turn, he boards with pawn-shop/antiques store owner Hartvig (Bent Hasselmen) in exchange for help with the business (rather than the usual sexual favors), which Nick supremely fulfills.
However, this environment soon gets him involved with an organized gang of adolescent hoodlums and hustlers that frequent Harvig's shop. This nasty Oliver Twist-esquire group make their living by seducing idiosyncratic middle age males with a taste for young blood only to rob them later, taking revenge on the sleazy "solicitors" who won't pay up and selling other stolen items to Harvig. Having brushed with them previously at the sleazy train station where he frequently hangs out, Nick soon moves in with the surrogate brood, led by the ruthless Rene (Danish pop star Benedicte W. Madsen), where their nightly escapades give Nick a taste of the nasty, nihilistic rush he's previously only skimmed upon.
Things start to get complicated when he falls for Rene, an obvious female guised as a boy who leads a rather normal life "off-duty", a complicated romance that becomes more problematic when Nick's old world starts intruding in... And that's all of this bizarre plot that I really need to give away.
The fundamental problem with "Pretty Boy" is not so much it's occasional over-the-top grotesqurie, it's unavoidably creepy subject or an odd stylistic resemblance to "Diva", but rather it's complete lack of a grip on a "story" that becomes more complicated and rushed then it needs to be, only feeling like another poison-penned rendering of modern-day Copenhagen in a disjunct and very confused form.
To be sure, "Pretty Boy" certainly jolts you awake at the begging, with one remarkably brutal act of casual violence as we see a bespectacled, late-30-ish waif of a man in a train stop bathroom get a relentless, out-of-nowhere beat down by Rene's gang of teenage hoodlums in front of the oblivious Nick, and it's a definite, if somewhat repellent, grabber to start off the fittingly bleak tale.
The rest of "Pretty Boy", however, is perpetually marred by the filmmakers complete indecisiveness (or, to be more frank, inattention) to his character's inner qualities and outward plight (not only Nick's bewildering, shape-shifting sexual preferences), as well as seeming awfully confused where to take an already over-wrought script that's ultimately just a packed trip lacking a destination.
Obviously, a film that dares to mingle in a world of child prostitution and teenage crime is going into areas that even most of the gutsiest filmmakers would fearfully avoid, and perhaps it's only natural that director Carsten Sonder feels a little too burdened to be able to propel the story past those basic themes or give any perspective. It certainly garnered some immediate controversy (though more so for some reportedly graphic nude scenes of young star Tadfurp (who admittedly looks much older), edited from the DVD cut), but that doesn't help mask the film's lack of a central identity, despite copious stories to tell. What is it, a sordid and occasionally bizarre coming-of-age story, a scathing portrayal of callous youthful violence and hedonism or, especially in the last act, a plot-heavy operatic tragedy? In short, all and none at the same time.
Ultimately, the film lives and dies with the actors, and that's where it ultimately fails. It's not so much the performers fault; the movie never gives them room to breathe, rarely letting them rise above a remote, somewhat sour blandness.
Tadfurp makes a decent debut as the title character, an earnest if somewhat uninspiring performer, but the movie never really decides on his Nick: is he just a under-nurtured, well-meaning kid that naively gets swept into a life of perpetual debauchery and petty crime in search of a family, or another aloof burnout with some serious underlying pshycological issues? The movie seems to toss both traits on the table but neither even start to gel; serious parts of his life are left fragmented and hopelessly vague, most notably the mutual obsession with Ralph (whose courtship barely plays throughout the movie except to give the story it's expectedly melodramatic finale) as well as his supposedly terrible home life (which actually seems to be a rather stable single-parent home, despite his mother's blithe promiscuity. Clearly there's tension underneath that the movie barely explores.)
Although most of the other actors are given little to do (and their portrayals are pretty much geared only towards sufficiency and nothing more), the only other supposedly pivotal perf is Madsen as the gender-bending Rene, which the movie foolishly tries to pass off the conspicuously feminine star as a cross-dresser who people would actually believe as a boy. Nor do they ever explore if this "practice" is strictly business or a dominant psychological obsession, as it seems to stress nothing about Nick's bizarre sexuality. Although Madsen initially seems slickly confident in a role full of crackling, malevolent potential, Sonder eventually loses interest in her, as Rene becomes another bland plot catalyst by the time she strikes up a romance with Nick, haplessly lacking chemistry with him or the rest of this odd and fatally unfocused misfire.
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