Sydney Film Festival
Kids Run punches through the boxing drama clichés
Worlds away from the Timeless fantasy trilogy, German star Jannis Niewöhner steps into a gritty role as a young father trying to keep his children in this affecting drama, which screens at this year's virtual edition of the Sydney Film Festival.
By Sarah Ward
When Kids Run begins in the boxing ring, showing blow after blow showered upon its protagonist, it begins in recognisable territory. Andi (Jannis Niewöhner) is fighting an important bout, but while visibly quick with his fists, his bruised face and the blood spurting from it illustrates that things are not going well. Instantly, he joins the busy ranks of boxing movie leads with drive, passion and motivation, yet not always achieving the desired results once they’ve laced up their gloves. He could’ve walked out of many a previous boxing-focused film, from Rocky and Raging Bull to The Fighter and Southpaw — all movies that leave an imprint on Barbara Ott’s feature filmmaking debut.
Thankfully, Ott sports a keen eye not just for Andi’s plight when he’s punching, but for the unwelcoming, uncaring and staunchly unforgiving world around him — and the reasons he’s fighting, too. In the process, the German writer/director shapes Kids Run into more than just another addition to a heaving pile of features about broken men seeking salvation through a flurry of jabs, hooks and uppercuts. Her film still fits that basic description; however it’s just as concerned with Andi’s struggles as a young father to three children, and as a labourer trying to make ends meet when employment security is a mere pipe dream. And, with also exploring how all of the above affects pre-teen Nikki (Eline Doenst), her brother Ronny (Giuseppe Bonvissuto) and baby Fiou (Sophia Demer) as they’re caught up in their dad’s quest to keep them together.
Grim and naturalistic
If Kids Run’s opening boxing sequence paints a grim picture for Andi, then the glimpse of his daily routine that follows only deepens it. He needs to take Nikki and Ronni to school, hand Fiou back to her mother Sonja (Lena Tronina) and avoid his landlord, all before reporting to work. It’s a juggling act that typically leaves his kids, the former lover he’s still pining for, the lessor chasing overdue rent and his inflexible boss all unhappy, plus Andi as well. It doesn’t help that his other ex, Isabel (Carol Schuler), can’t be relied on with the children, or that Sonja has started dating the flashy Viktor (Oleg Tikhomirov) despite Andi’s repeated attempts to win her back.
Ott doesn’t shy away from the darker elements of Andi and his offspring’s lives, including the former’s explosive temper, and the latter’s horrific ordeal when they’re in Isabel’s care. In fact, there’s no shortage of misery, agony and desperation sent this young family’s way, the relentlessness of which doesn’t escape viewers’ attention. That said, while one scene involving an animal proves too blatant — and too overtly calculated, aiming to evoke a clear emotional reaction from audiences who, by this point, are already invested in the story — Kids Run usually favours a matter-of-fact tenor that depicts Andi’s troubles without varnish and with evident naturalism. That applies to the narrative’s main dramatic impetus, and the reason that its lead character seeks a return to the ring via a local amateur boxing tournament. After borrowing money from Sonja to keep a roof over his head, which she takes from Viktor without asking, Andi needs to pay back the cash quickly. If he doesn’t, Sonja will cut him out of not only her life, but Fiou’s as well.
A compelling star turn
Sunny, Ott’s 2013 short film, also examined the trials and tribulations of parenting — and while Kids Run shares that focus, it definitely doesn’t take its predecessor’s title to heart. Little is bright or hopeful for Andi, including visually, with cinematographer Falko Lachmund using an obvious grey and gritty colour scheme to reinforce the pervasive distress swirling at almost every moment. The same can be said of Kids Run’s penchant for jumpy frames, which ooze the same tension and anxiety noticeably pumping through the film’s central figures. Like much of the feature, this stylistic approach plays to type; however, when paired with moving and commanding performances, it never feels like a by-the-numbers choice.
Worlds away from his role in the Timeless fantasy series (aka Ruby Red, Sapphire Blue and Emerald Green), and in a more conflicted mode than his lead turn in TV series Beat, Niewöhner is Kids Run’s compelling core, expertly conveying the pain and anguish that Andi keeps trying to bury to get by. Even if the movie didn’t make plain that savage injuries previously thwarted his boxing career and changed the course of his life forever — injuries he risks aggravating by strapping up again to save his family — the character’s deep-seated trauma is visibly mixed with his bluster. Niewöhner doesn’t sand down those rough, tough edges, but he doesn’t let them solely dictate Andi’s behaviour and demeanour either. He can be a doting dad, too, even he doesn’t always earn the unwavering adoration expressed by the impressive Doenst and Bonvissuto. Indeed, conveying those jostling elements of Andi’s personality, and his life, is what ensures that Kids Run hits its mark. While there’s much that’s familiar about Ott’s film, it ducks and weaves with its own purpose, spirit and potency, as firmly driven by its star.