Friday, March 06, 2015

NYICFF ’15: Secrets of War

You’re supposed to make mistakes when you’re a kid. That’s all part of the growing up process. Unfortunately, there is a much smaller margin for error when an oppressive foreign power occupies your country during a time of war. That is the environment two Dutch twelve year-olds face in Dennis Bots’ Secrets of War (trailer here), which screens during the 2015 New York International Children’s Film Festival.

Initially, Tuur Ramakers and Lambert Nijskens are inseparable friends, but their families have already aligned on different sides of the war. Lambert’s politically ambitious father has become the town’s leading National Socialist collaborator. As a result, Tuur’s parents have largely cut their social ties with the Nijskenses. They might also be taking an even a more active role in the resistance, but they have shielded Tuur from any compromising knowledge. Naturally, he picks up on this and resents it. Nevertheless, young Ramakers and Nijskens largely carry on as they always did, thanks in part to the latter’s reluctance to join the Hitler Youth. However, everything changes when Maartje Holtermans arrives at school.

Supposedly, Holtermans is visiting her aunt and uncle from the north, as kids would do during the war. They live in a rather provincial town after all, but they are far from immune from air raids. Nevertheless, there is obviously more to Holtermans’ story than she lets on (but the audience should tweak to it right away). Of course, Ramakers and Nijskens are slower on the up-take, because they are kids. Regrettably, this will have dire consequences when three becomes a crowd. As feelings develop between the more sophisticated Holtermans and the bad boy Ramakers, the resentful Nijskens will do something impulsively rash.

Sure, most festival goers will have seen a fair number of thematically similar films—Martin Koolhaven’s occupation-set coming-of-age story Winter in Wartime being a particularly relevant comparative. However, Secrets is surprisingly smart and subtle showing how typically overheated adolescent drama could take on wider tragic implications. Things get dark and desperate, but in grimly logical rather than contrived ways.

The trio of young primaries are also quite polished and work remarkably well in-tandem. Maas Bronkhuyzen oozes mischievous charisma as Ramakers and Pippa Allen’s Holtermans could pass for a pre-teen Natalie Portman. Poor Joes Brauers is stuck with most of the film’s ignoble work, but he still manages to convey all of Nijskens’ humanizing insecurities and jealousies. Although far from a driving element, the white-haired local vicar is also refreshingly portrayed as a (much harassed) man of principle.

Karin van Holst Pellekaan’s adaptation of Jacques Vriens’ YA novel forthrightly addresses the realities of the Holocaust, but it stops short of showing viewers the actual horrors. Arguably, it could serve as an effective introduction to the National Socialist genocide without overwhelming young viewers. It definitely reflects a twelve year-old’s perspective, but that makes it quite touching for adult viewers. Recommended with a good deal of enthusiasm, Secrets of War screens tomorrow (3/7) at the IFC Center and Sunday (3/15) at the SVA Theatre, as part of this year’s NYICFF.