In the third installment of TROUT FUN, an ongoing series of articles by guest writers and fellow critics, Tobias Burms joins us again for his take on last year’s coming-of-age-cum-‘Mean Creek’ teen angst picture (from his home nation of Belgium), ‘HOME’.
A Larry Clark-lite title of sorts, Belgian flick ‘Home’ made an impression without making a splash. -MLP-
The progressive educational model, where children are brought up to never blindly accept authority, has left its mark on family dynamics, with post-May 68 parents lamenting teenagers’ unwillingness to help around the house for several decades now. The pinnacle of this chore-o-phobia lies in the impossible burden of doing laundry, a Sisyphean task which is to be avoided at all costs. There’s even an in-joke among Belgian college students (aged roughly 18-26), where a weekly commute home is legitimized solely by the need of having mom tend to your dirty laundry.
This strategic ignorance is well-documented in popular fiction as well, albeit reduced to a caricatural trope, a protocol even that involves carefully planned steps, as if it’s derived from some manual “Do your own laundry as an adolescent – and fail miserably!” The juvenile cretins in question should always be males, preferably of the ‘slacker’ kind (cynical looking, long-haired, baggy pants wearing Generation X anachronisms that exist only in the imagination of language textbook’s illustrators). The kids have to cram as many garments as possible into the basket, then proceed by adding a few gallons of detergent (always poured into the machine instead of the intended tray – to highlight youthful rowdiness and free-spirited behavior) and finish by slamming the door shut, often leaving a shirt sleeve stick out the machine. The sketch should always end with the door being opened prematurely (to emphasize youthful eagerness), the soapy wet floor serving as a hilarious punchline.
Not only does this elaborate convention suggest that mastering it might prove to be more difficult than doing laundry correctly, it’s also a prime example of the meek, conformist way film makers look for common ground when portraying teenagers, fearing to alienate anyone by showing truly erratic behavior and settling for harmless winks instead. By using this laundry-cliché at a pivotal moment, Home (a supposedly taboo-breaking film) reveals its underlying mechanism: unflinching scenes of sexual abuse are counterbalanced by a banal, self-explanatory narrative that’s contrived to avoid offense or confusion and tries to manufacture audience consensus about a ‘shocking yet urgent’ film that ‘needs to be seen by all’ (ironically, when a truly radical film like The Smell of Us acknowledges the senseless and incomprehensible nature of such atrocities, it’s deemed ‘gratuitous’ and ‘void’)
Various other festival-pandering techniques are used: teenage cacophony is smothered to death by stale Dardenne pillows (disenfranchised boy is released from juvie, is adopted by his aunt and uncle, must mend his street fighting ways by learning an honest trade. Will he succeed in his plight?), as viewers are coerced into sympathizing with the more stoic characters – their silence reveals sophistication and maturity beyond their years. And as with many tepid teenage angst movies, there is terrible uneasiness to depart from the bland, unspecified skater look popularized by Gus van Sant in the early noughties under the moto: why change a winning (festival) formula? (2014’s renowned Belgian film Violet had equally dull characters – which you could just excahnge with some of Home’s without anyone noticing).
The film also proposes a revolt against long-defeated institutions: the school system is portrayed as needlessly draconian, as the film opens with a scene where a supervisor is aggressively instructing 18-year-olds to go back to class, evoking the borstal horror of Alan Clarke’s Scum. Public services are incompetent and obsolete, a police interrogation scene shows that adults simply can’t grasp the subtle nuances of social media use (except for the adults who made Home, because they incorporated all kinds of swanky Snapchat footage into their film). Finally, the suburbs’ hypocrisy is exposed once and for all when a mother discovers the heinous crime committed by her son’s best friend: “If only he’d reached out to me…” she weeps (he actually did on two occasions, as the audience vividly remembers). The take-home is clear: don’t be fooled by the apparent open-mindedness of middle class families, simply because they need a charity case every so now and then to pat themselves on the back. Unsurprisingly, the adopted boy is treated like a lesser child, initially bestowed with (unwanted) gifts such as a new flat screen TV (once again, Home’s filmmakers are the only adults who realize that this generation doesn’t watch TV) but treated with disproportionate hostility when making mistakes and even abandoned in times of crisis, a typical shielding mechanism of the middle class in order to preserve the status-quo. The adopted boy is pulled out of school against his will to become a plumber, while their ‘real’ son – a blunt-blazing, twerk-video-recording, delinquency-courting dunce – aspires to go to law school after he graduates. Mom’s waiting with the laundry basket.