USA/Poland/Germany 2002 : Przemyslaw Reut : 80 mins
Why are all the good cinematographers Polish? It’s a question that may enter your mind during Paradox Lake, a labour of love for Przemyslaw Reut, the director, co-writer (with Wieslaw Saniewski), co-producer, sound man and cinematographer – and of all these jobs, it’s only the latter where he seems to have any prospect of a future career in film-making. Because whole the film often looks great, on almost every other front, it’s strictly amateur-hour.
Reut’s intentions are nothing if not honourable – as the film points out, one out of every 500 babies is both with autism, and Paradox Lake offers an all-too-rate insight into their world. Which makes it all the more frustrating that it’s done in such a ham-fisted manner. We follow an idealistic young Manhattanite called Matt Wolf (the character shares the actor’s name) as he takes a position as volunteer supervisor at an upstate holiday camp for autistic children. He clashes with brutal fellow-worker Ernie (Ernie Jurez), has a brief fling with another supervisor, Rachel (Phe Caplan) and forms a special bond with a troubled child named Jessica (Jessica Fuchs).
The film handles Matt’s dealings with Ernie and Rachel in the most perfunctory, rudimentary ways – their scenes with Matt have the feeling of awkward improvisation, hampered by each actors’ glaring dramatic limitations. The presence of a proper actor on set (Jason Miller, in his final role as the camp’s head) only serves to underline the inadequacies of the three principal adults. The film is on much more original and fertile ground, however, when it finally turns into a case-study of Jessica and her struggle to communicate with the outside world, but by then it’s too little, too late.
From a very early scene where Matt (and the audience) watches a lengthy ‘idiots-guide’ video explaining autism, Paradox Lake often feels like a documentary in disguise. Reut would have been better advised to emulate Marc Singer’s Dark Days, another artless, no-budget examination of a neglected New York social problem (the homeless) which didn’t dilute its strengths by posing as a drama. That’s not to say that Reut should have gone the Rain Man route – but, as Philip K Dick showed with his novel ‘Martian Time-Slip’, it’s perfectly possible to explore the world of autism by using it as a starting-point for a challenging, original drama. As it is, Reut’s use of distorted digital video gives only the barest insight into autistic perceptions – they’re never more than just pretty pictures.
17th March, 2002
(seen 13th February, Cinemaxx Berlin – Berlin Film Festival)
by Neil Young
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