Lone Scherfig's story of homelessness and uncertainty in contemporary America is surprisingly optimistic. Kicking off the Berlinale with a tale of hope, the work offers humor to compensate for its lack of credibility.
Clara (Zoe Kazan), a young mother, heads to New York City with her two sons to escape her abusive husband. The three quickly face homelessness, but are lucky enough to meet people who are ready to help them out.
Director Lone Scherfig's film that opened the Berlin International Film Festival on Thursday is titled The Kindness of Strangers, reflecting, without irony, the attitude shared by its different characters. While each are dealing with some form of chaos in their lives, they're still open to helping each other.
Speaking at the press conference ahead of her film's world premiere, the Danish director said the movie's message is not easy to articulate. "It gets very syrupy when I put it in words," she said. "It's about hope and giving a sense of community."
The personal is political
The Berlinale's opening film appears to have been selected to set a mood of friendliness and optimism across a 10-day festival whose slogan is "The personal is political."
The Kindness of Strangers reflects that motto as well. While the plot does not refer to contemporary politics at all, the fact that its characters are ready to help out the homeless and jobless in the current context of growing economic inequality equates to a form of social activism.
"Any film that emphasizes things that unite us instead of what divides us as human beings now is not only desirable, it's essential," said British actor Bill Nighy, who plays in the film the role of Timofey, the eccentric owner of a Russian restaurant.
An ensemble cast: Caleb Landry Jones, Andrea Riseborough, Bill Nighy, Lone Scherfig, Zoe Kazan and Tahar Rahim
An Oscar-nominated director
Ahead of the opening, much attention has been given to the fact that the Berlinale's high female representation is unprecedented for an A-list festival. Selecting Lone Scherfig was an additional demonstration of this curatorial commitment to women filmmakers.
The director gained international renown with the romantic comedy Italian for Beginners, the fifth official film of the Dogma 95 movement, which already featured Scherfig's optimist approach — one that also starkly contrasted with the grim offerings of the movement's stars, Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg.
Scherfig was also nominated for two Oscars with An Education in 2009. While that coming-of-age drama featured a screenplay by Nick Hornby, she authored this latest work herself.
Unfortunately, despite her credentials and the positive energy the director transmits with her film — and her infectious smile — The Kindness of Strangers is not a very strong work. Which begs the question: How much did the bonus of a female director influence the festival's decision to open with this film?
Everyone is in the loop
The different characters in her ensemble film are quickly interlinked through various coincidences, suggesting the hyperlink cinema narrative method that director Robert Altman successfully applied in works like Nashville (1975) or Short Cuts (1993).
However in The Kindness of Strangers, the characters are involved in too many of the narrative loops to be credible.
For instance, Alice (Andrea Riseborough) is an ER nurse who, following her 12-hour shifts, manages to organize and serve food at a soup kitchen and run a "Forgiveness" therapy group. On top of that, she also has enough time to be a regular at Timofey's first class restaurant.
Yet while all the food there — except the caviar — is really bad, the protagonists eat at the restaurant all the time. Perhaps they enjoy the Russian clichés of the posh location: vodka, caviar, thick red curtains and balalaika players covering "The House of the Rising Sun" for kitsch weddings.
Luckily, Marc (Tahar Rahim), just released from prison, also happens to be an ex-restaurateur and he's working on improving things, all while hosting Clara and her family. His own lawyer, John Peter (Jay Baruchel) is also part of Alice's therapy group and is called to defend the fugitive family when they find a way of potentially locking up the abusive father (Esben Smed).
The cast of characters is completed with Jeff (Caleb Landry Jones), who is there to show that even the most untalented person can be kind as well.
Also lacking credibility is Clara's character. She left with her children without money or an actual plan, and avoids centers for victims of domestic violence because her husband is a cop, carelessly preferring homelessness as an option for her young children — even though such centers are known to focus on anonymity and security. The film plays on the other myth that a policeman from Buffalo has buddies everywhere in NYC and that he can easily track down his family in any random location.
Even though Clara is officially a woman with little education, and who's only had a single job at a curtain store before getting married and becoming a housewife, she knows an astonishing number of tricks to get around in NYC, managing to quickly swipe expensive dresses and high-heel shoes in boutiques and fill her purse with hors-d'oeuvres for the kids while they — hopefully — wait for her at the public library.
But being picky about narrative details doesn't feel very kind, actually. This is a film that can be enjoyed if you take a moment to suspend disbelief, and instead focus on its witty lines and warm-hearted intentions — and many moviegoers definitely will.