Tribe, The (2015)

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 11/29/14 23:34:03

"Absolutely worth seeing once, even if it leaves you battered."
5 stars (Awesome)

SCREENED AT FANTASTIC FEST 2014: Well, that's certainly something I'm glad to have seen, although I'm also sort of thankful that I'll likely never see the like again. The excited parts of that sentence are to be expected from a movie whose opening titles say it's in sign language and will not be subtitled, but maybe not the nervous ones. And yet, it's a sign of a great movie when even those are thrilling as well as horrifying.

I suspect that what we see in The Tribe - a sequestered, young population turning away from their supposed reason for being there but instead wreaking mayhem - happens at a lot of boarding schools, but seeing it happen at a Ukrainian school for the Deaf makes it hit a bit harder. Although no explanations are given, it's not hard to figure out what's going on in these kids' heads: The hearing world finds them a nuisance worthy of only grudging concessions, and this is the first time they they've been able to band together to do what they want, and with that anger it comes out as violence, crime, and sex. There is one classroom scene early on, but after that, academics seem irrelevant - the only time we see the kids doing anything resembling study later, the purpose is immediately undercut.

It's a harrowing ride, with traditional bullying at the start, lawlessness in the middle (which filmmaker Miroslav Slaboshpitsky often uses as a perverse way to show students coming together), and horrors the audience might wish to unsee at the end. It's a bleak movie that often elicits cringes, but to his credit, Slaboshpitsky never seems to just be engaging in exploitation; everything moves the story of new student Sergey (Grigoriy Fesenko) forward in some way, from the opening scenes where he has difficulty finding the school, to his crush on classmate Anya (Yana Novikova) - who along with roommate Svetka (Rosa Babiy) turns tricks to try and afford the papers to emigrate to Italy - to the ugly place that leads. Slaboshpitsky shows the audience much more than it wants to see at times, but it seldom feels like too much.

The movie looks striking - the school in Kiev where we spend much of our time isn't quite run down but hasn't been upgraded in a while, and much of the rest of the action takes place in the dark. Sound is also an intriguing part of the film - with no music and no spoken dialogue (no subtitles for the sign language, either), the incidental noises tend to ring out sharp and clear, but Slaboshpitsky and his crew do an excellent job of making sure that they are somewhat inessential. The hearing audience is not going to get any sort of heads-up that the Deaf audience misses, and even incidents where we notice that there's a lot of noise being made that the characters won't hear are kept to a minimum. It's a precisely-made film in that way, even if it does embrace a certain amount of chaos.

The cast is entirely made up of the Deaf, and with most playing teenagers, that cast probably not packed with folks with much experience. That makes how impressive their performances turn out even more amazing; though it might initially seem like signing might make being expressive without being hammy easier, that isn't necessarily the case, and it's impressive how the gestures used tend to convey fine shades of emotion as well as meaning. Grigoriy Fesenko gets a heck of a character arc to play out, and he delivers one gut-punch after another from start to finish. Yana Novikova is an excellent pairing with him, still giving off an air of innocence that can be rescued even after all she has done and had done to her, letting the audience see how Anya can get inside Sergey's head but never just becoming an adjunct to her. There's a barrel of smaller characters that all make distinct impressions despite limited screen time and specific purposes.

Be warned: While Slaboshpitsky could have just made a movie that is memorable for the unusual cast and decision to tell the story without conventional dialog, he also opts to smash his way into the viewer's memory with unflinching and brutal imagery. The story he's telling of outcasts hardening themselves and living outside society's rules pulls no punches, and while I don't think I would have it any other way, it's intense enough that I will have to consider long and hard before revisiting this film.

But, then, it's not every movie that gets such a strong reaction; few even make the attempt to get near where this one goes. You've probably seldom seen the like, and even if it leaves you the worse for wear, it certainly merits that one viewing.

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