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Berlin Film Review: ‘Bright Nights’

Variety logo Variety 2/13/2017 Jay Weissberg
© Provided by Variety

You know that movie about the father and his estranged teenage son going on a road trip? While that hackneyed premise is unquestionably rich with possibilities, there needs to be something memorable about such a script to distinguish yet another reworking, and Thomas Arslan’s well-acted, attractively shot “Bright Nights” offers minimal variation on the theme. More in line with Aslan’s early, minimalist films like “Vacation” than the more recent “Gold,” this two-hander largely shot in northern Norway is simple and honest, but in an already overpopulated field won’t stand out in the crowd. German and Norwegian cinemas will probably see modest returns.

Industrial engineer Michael (Georg Friedrich) receives word that his father died of a heart attack in northern Norway. They hadn’t seen each other for a while, but he’s still affected, more so than his sister who simply doesn’t care: “He gave us no opportunity for forgiving,” she tells him on the phone. “Now it’s too late.”

Things aren’t exactly going great between Michael and his partner Leyla (Marie Leuenberger) either, and when she breaks the news that she’s been offered a one-year transfer to Washington, D.C., it’s clear they won’t last (though given their lousy communication skills, it’s unlikely they’d remain together one more week, let alone one year).

Needing to deal with his father’s funeral arrangements in Norway and preferring not to go alone, Michael takes his reluctant 14-year-old son Luis (Tristan Göbel), although the two have rarely spent time together after the divorce. Relations are strained, with Luis flinty and Michael controlling; the teen realizes he has no choice when his dad surprises him by saying they’re taking a road trip up north. What follows are picturesque scenes of forested mountains seen from the car and from campsites, punctuated with usually tense parental conversations.

Michael wants forgiveness for being an absentee dad, obviously seeing a familiar pattern following his relationship with his own father. Yet it’s foolish to expect a 14-year-old to understand such an adult need, and in truth, has Michael earned it? It all feels so clichéd, with each semi-crisis kept relatively muted, yet positioned exactly where one expects it to be.

Arslan opens one interesting window when Luis asks his father about his favorite movies, and Michael answers with titles from the late ’70s and early ’80s: This is a man who has not moved on with his life, which is a sad realization, though hardly a surprising one. By the end, there’s the potential for a glimmer of understanding between the two and maybe even some bonding, but don’t expect Sokurov’s “Father and Son.”

Arslan’s handling of actors has always been a strong suit, and the two leads are well cast. Friedrich captures Michael’s shut-down nature, unable to understand how to repair his mistakes and prevent his wounded past from doing more damage. Even more interesting to watch is young Göbel, already a film veteran (“Tschick,” “West”) and highly skilled in the nuanced, relatively non-verbal ways he reveals Luis’ frustration as well as bewilderment at being forced to deal with his father’s emotional baggage on top of his own.

“Bright Nights” reunites Arslan with “In the Shadows” DP Reinhold Vorschneider, and widescreen visuals are picturesque, attuned to how the Norwegian summer light casts a cool spell over the increasingly earthen colors. It’s an appropriately expansive backdrop for these two solitary figures driving into the fog, not always willingly sharing nature’s feast together. Pared-down music and drawn-out, unchanging electronic sounds add to the moodiness.

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