Saturday, November 15, 2014

AFI Fest 2014: "The Tribe"

Director: Miroslav Slaboshpitsky
Runtime: 130 minutes

Entirely in sign language without any subtitles or translation, Miroslav Slaboshpitsky's The Tribe is a marvel of universal communication. Entirely populated by a cast of young deaf actors, this study of teenage cruelty in a small Ukrainian town takes its time to build up its characters and their world, but its chilling finale makes it hard to shake. Though it has no name actors to draw in audiences, Slaboshpitsky's ambitious drama deserves to find an audience that will hopefully only grow with strong word of mouth.

When a new, unnamed student arrives at a rural school for the deaf, he's quickly roped into the surprisingly nasty student hierarchy. Without a single word spoken, Slaboshpitsky's ensemble comes into focus and his main set-up becomes so natural that it avoids gimmicky shock tactics. Aside from one early scene in a classroom, most of The Tribe takes place outside of the restrictions of the classroom. Adults are rarely seen in The Tribe, and when they appear, they're usually taking advantage of or collaborating with the school's vicious, mob-like elite.

Filled with complex camera work that emphasizes the cast over a single protagonist, the community at the school is instantly recognizable in its routine handling of social strata and the cruelty that follows. The more depraved the students act, the more The Tribe pulls one in to its spiral of bad behavior and the disturbing consequences. It's rare that only one student occupies the frame, but Slaboshpitsky's and his talented cast find ways of distinguishing the various students. There are no names ever given or indicated, but the personalities say more than enough through volatile facial expressions and hand gestures.

The character who comes closest to a protagonist often gets lost in the fray, but the film's eventual return to his struggle pays off well once the story moves past the point of no return. A strong subplot involving a pregnant student also works quite well, and features the film's second most harrowing scene. 

The most harrowing, the one that will leave people talking once they pick their jaws up off of the floor, is the finale. Spoiling it would, obviously, ruin the surprise, but even in retrospect it's one hell of a climax. The bluntness at the end could have easily been a last ditch attempt at provocation, but in the context of the rest of the story it couldn't feel more appropriate in its extremity. So much of the cruelty in The Tribe is presented as just above normal, but that constant bullying can lead to devastating consequences. The longer The Tribe goes on, the violence only becomes more uncomfortable until it arrives at the breaking point and leaves a mark that no fraternal bonding can ever repair.

Grade: B+

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