Blind knowledge is probably the best state in which to see “The Young Kieslowski” – not for fear of any plot spoilers, but because its quick synopsis might actually repel viewers before seeing a single frame. Following a geeky college student loses his virginity and impregnates his first girlfriend in one fell swoop -- as “Obvious Child” recently explored, such a premise surrounding that aftermath requires a skillful execution, and initially it seems like director Kerem Sanga’s second feature won’t take a similar consideration.
However, just as a slate of recent teen dramas like “The Spectacular Now” or “Perks of Being a Wallflower” have achieved, a helping of real emotion and well-developed characters helps to right the balance, and “The Young Kieslowski” carries on in that tradition. For its majority, the film is much warmer, funnier, and pleasurable than you’d expect, as Cal Tech student Brian Kieslowski (Ryan Malgarini) debates whether to follow his girlfriend Leslie (Haley Lu Richardson) with her decision to keep the babies, twins, or take a cowardly out instead.
Faith is a foremost reason for Leslie’s decision, and the film surprises by portraying Christianity as neither the treacly sledge hammer of persuasion as seen in the recent “God’s Not Dead” nor the bitter disdain of something like 2004’s “Saved!”. At least until the later passages, when the matter is addressed and discarded with little thought, Claire is an intelligent character torn between family, like her single father played by James Le Gros, and her personal beliefs – which as a freshman in college she isn’t entirely sure about either.
Richardson’s performance goes a long way in selling the reactions to Brian’s idiotic decisions, after the first of which Leslie would have likely taken a chair to his face and left instead of accepting his apology. Malgarini conveys a deer-in-the-headlights disposition that also works for this purpose—he’s almost the poster boy for young male helplessness—but for all of his and Richardson’s natural chemistry together, it’s when Sanga’s script charts these dramatic stakes that the character motivations fall out of order. It’s not that the choices individually are hard to believe; rather, it’s the concentration of so many during the third act that pull you out of the action.
Overall the comedic aspects of the film match its other aims, Sanga taking care both in the scripted dialogue and the physical timing onscreen. Le Gros has some great beats as Leslie’s overbearing ex-military father, while Brian’s parents played by Joshua Malina (“The West Wing”) and Melora Walters (“Boogie Nights”) have a great rapport that gains our attention when it strays into more dramatic turns. The only wholesale dud in the film’s approach occurs in some overly precious touches applied in the editing room – a series of freeze-frame pauses mid-scene wherein Brian provides commentary on the action, as though “Funny Games” sloppily invaded a teen sex comedy.
In fact, little in Sanga’s film ends up being particularly shocking or original, but that’s not entirely what the film trying to do. A consistent comedy-drama with heart and great performances is more the director’s speed, and the pairing of Malgarini and Richardson—Richardson, especially, who also stars in LAFF horror “The Well”—signals an exciting string of work to come from both in the future. It’s true, if the idea of spending 90 minutes among a gaggle of horny college kids pondering their future sounds excruciating, “The Young Kieslowski” may first fall exactly into expectations. But soldier on -- there’s a charmer in here that’s a fake-out of the most welcome kind. [B+]