TIFF 2015 Review: Love Turns Ghastly in ‘We Monsters’
What’s the greater act of love: reporting your 14-year-old daughter who’s just confessed to murdering her best friend to the police, or covering up the crime so she can lead the most normal life possible thereafter? The answer seems obvious, which is how divorced parents Paul (Mehdi Nebbou) and Christine (Ulrike C. Tscharre) end up accusing the dead girl’s alcoholic father (Ronald Kukulies) of being responsible for her disappearance.
Love can make people do terrible things — a point the German drama We Monsters illustrates over and over again. Compulsively watchable if frustratingly one-note (well, two-note), Sebastian Ko’s sophomore film skillfully maintains its difficult balance between moralizing and empathy. During its worst moments, it makes tragedy feel like a dare. How far can we punish these characters before it doesn’t make narrative sense anymore? And yet, Paul and Christine’s actions as the parents of teenage Sarah (Janina Fautz) are all wholly understandable — which roots their increasingly desperate acts of violence in recognizable motivations and thought processes. Each decision feels like the right one — and each one pushes them closer to mayhem and chaos.
In the days after her friend’s death, Sarah displays so little grief or regret that even Paul and Christine are forced to second-guess themselves — their daughter might be a psychopath, after all. But Sarah turns out to be something potentially far more dangerous: a clueless teen. It’s quickly revealed that the story Sarah’s told her parents about what happened to her friend Charlie (Marie Bendig) isn’t quite the truth, but an act of vengeance against her rock-star dad for putting his career before her. What’s heartbreaking, of course, is that Sarah’s too young to realize what it means that her parents now believe her capable of killing her closest friend.
Happily divorced and both newly paired off, Paul and Christine are forced to work together to keep their only daughter out of prison while attempting – and failing – to keep their layers of mutual resentments from complicating their situation further. (Sarah’s delight that her parents are spending a lot more time together is soon followed by an agonizing sex scene that perfectly exemplifies why the duo were wise to separate.) Every time Paul and Christine think they can finally lay their problems to rest, Charlie’s angry, increasingly intoxicated father reappears, demanding to speak with Sarah, especially once he spots his daughter’s backpack at Christine’s place of business.
Despite a glaring plot hole or two, the script boasts ingenuity to spare. Stark as the film is by design — with some showy camera work and off-kilter compositions that add visual interest — it’s full of rich character details, like Paul’s tattoo of Princess Jasmine riding a magic carpet — a telltale sign of both his adoration for his daughter and of a history of poor decision-making. As promised, the film ends with monstrosity, but the utterly familiar kind. To their absolute horror, Paul and Christine discover that the gall — and the pained bawl — are coming from inside the house.