Review: Nena (Diesing, 2014) – MVFF 2015

Still from the movie Nena

It is 1989 (again!) in the Netherlands. Nena (the lovely Abbey Hoes) is in high school. She listens to punk rock, makes snarky comments, and falls in love with Carlo (Gijs Blom), the hot pitcher on her baseball team. Also, her parents are separating, father Martin (Uwe Ochsenknecht) moving in with Uncle Paul (André Jung), the vicar. It all seems pretty ordinary, right? Except that Martin is quadriplegic, stricken by multiple sclerosis and bound to a wheelchair. But Nena is mature enough, sophisticated enough, or simply accustomed enough to take her father’s disability in stride. What’s difficult to handle now is her father’s absence–she glowers as her mother (Monic Hendrickx) arranges a house plant where his bed used to be–though he’s not so far away that she can’t spend a good amount of her non-school hours with him, accompanying him for his water therapy, playing chess with him, lighting his cigarettes.

This is no dutiful daughter act. Nena and Martin share a bond that goes beyond typical father-daughter relationships: they are friends and equals. Their closeness, however, isn’t enough to quell Martin’s death wish. Ever since his diagnosis when Nena was seven, he has been suicidal, though we would never guess it from his wry vigor and crotchety irreverence. His desire to die becomes only more urgent as his health gradually declines, and, after another failed attempt, his depression is impossible to hide from Nena. Though it takes her a moment or two, her anger and sense of betrayal eventually give way to reluctant acceptance. How she handles that acceptance marks her entrance into adulthood.

What keeps this film enjoyable is its blend of heavy subject matter with light-hearted tone (and Ochsenknecht’s compelling performance–so much can be expressed with just an eyebrow!). Newcomer Saskia Diesing, who wrote and directed the semi-autobiographical Nena,  chooses not to plumb the existential depths or ponder the moral implications of suicide and euthanasia. Instead, she borrows heavily from the jaded high schooler coming-of-age sub-genre but keeps it fresh with the charming relationship between Martin and Nena. Yes, Nena has a romance with the hot (and, by Martin’s view, simple-minded) athlete, but the real love story is between father and daughter.

Is Nena too cool to be real? Yeah. She’s every slightly unpopular girl’s vision of her ideal self. And she’s pretty, to boot. Is her thing with Carlo a bit too easy and cheesy? Yup, but probably intentionally so. Is she maybe too adult? Well. I know the laws in the Netherlands are different from the U.S., but there seem to be far too many scenes of Nena lounging in bars and smoking cigarettes and riding around town and far too few of her studying or looking bored at school. It’s also true that all the guardians in her life are unusually permissive, especially considering she is supposed to only be a teenager. And far be it from me to assume, but doesn’t this situation call for a little more angst? Sure, there’s some suppressed emotional turmoil, helped along by the moody ’80s rock she listens to on her Walkman, but overall Nena’s self-possession isn’t merely enviable–it’s miraculous.

Having a touch more realism would perhaps give the film more emotional shading. As it is, the plot (after a certain point) becomes rather predictable and the light tone that serves the film so well in some instances keeps it feeling unsatisfyingly shallow, undermining its impactfulness and, ultimately, rendering it a bit forgettable. Still, an impressive feature debut for Saskia Diesing.

Nena screened a few days ago at the Mill Valley Film Festival.