“Kauwboy,” the Netherlands’ official Oscar entry and recent winner of the European Film Awards Fipresci prize, finds similarity in another 2012 Foreign-Language submission, Ursula Meier’s “Sister,” and last year’s enigmatic Cannes Grand Jury winner from the Dardenne brothers, “Kid with a Bike.” Each film centers on a neglected boy, with a sensitive eye to the fundamentally loving yet insufficiently responsible adults around him.
All three films are anchored by striking performances from their young leads. Thomas Doret and Kacey Mottet Klein in “Kid with a Bike” and “Sister,” respectively, show a naturalism and lack of self-consciousness that many adult actors would envy. Rick Lens in “Kauwboy” is equally fine. Lens plays Jojo, a mop-haired pre-adolescent living with his father in a green Dutch suburb. We know that Jojo is at home by himself often, with his burly, taciturn father coming and going from a security job.
On the occasions that Dad is around, plunked in front of the Dutch equivalent of the Discovery channel, or stewing over a low-maintenance dinner on the burner, Jojo treads carefully. When he feels that Dad is about to burst, he runs for cover upstairs, and waits out the inevitable smash-boom-clatter, and then the slam of the front door. In a moving sequence, Jojo wanders down to the kitchen to survey the damage after one of his father’s angry fits. Tomato sauce is splattered on the wall, and spaghetti strewn on the floor, now cold. “This isn’t so bad,” Jojo says aloud.
Jojo discovers some friends in the course of the film, in the form of a baby jackdaw that has fallen from a tree, who he sensibly names Jack, and a pretty, gangly girl, Yenthe, on his water polo team. He takes Jack home with him, secretly caring for the bird in his room, watching its matted black fluff turn into silky feathers, and eventually coaching the animal’s first flight. Jojo also periodically talks on the phone to his absent mother, who we learn is a country music singer possibly touring the U.S. We never hear her voice on the other end of the line, but her twangy crooning makes up the film’s soundtrack.
Director Boudewijn Koole shows a lovely sensitivity for Jojo’s world. The opening sequence, which repeats a number of times throughout the film, follows the boy as he races Dad’s security van to a bridge each morning. The action simultaneously betrays Jojo’s desire for attention and his resistance to Dad’s daily departure for work, which leaves him alone. Koole’s filmmaking also understands on a visual level that Jojo is on the brink of puberty. When Yenthe sticks her used gum under a bench at the swimming pool, Jojo slyly unsticks it and plops it into his own mouth. A transitive and stress-free way of swapping spit. Before bedtime, Jojo vigorously brushes his teeth, to the point that some sloppy toothpaste foam splats on his chest. The joke wasn’t lost on me.
Koole intersperses freeze-frame sequences into the narrative, which have a startling poignancy -- Jojo lying in the grass with Yenthe, spending time with his father near the barbeque. The technique recalls various works from the French New Wave, specifically Chris Marker’s “La Jetee,” and one of the greatest neglected-child films ever made, François Truffaut’s “The 400 Blows.” Jojo’s life has long stretches of loneliness and worry, but these frozen images are the small, quietly happy moments he gleans from time to time.
Why is Dad so angry? We learn eventually, but I won’t give it away. The important thing is that we understand he’s angry, which makes him a sympathetic character, as opposed to a merely menacing figure appearing now and then to wail on his kid. Loek Peters is very good in the role. He has very few lines, which allows his face, simmering with frustration, self-disappointment and deep-buried sadness, to do the talking. Indeed, it’s Peters’ performance coupled with Lens’ that makes “Kauwboy” such an introspective, truthful film. An unhappy child isn’t an island, after all.