Sunday, February 9, 2014

Freedom, Family, and Basketball: Max Minsky and Me (2007)

NOTE: This piece was originally published on Critics at Large on February 9, 2014. If you wish to comment, please do so on that page.


Emil Reinke and Zoe Moore star in Max Minsky and Me

"You don't have to understand the world. You just have to find your place in it."
  attributed to Albert Einstein

In an era when films for and about adolescents have a rough time navigating the divide between Disney animated movies (strong though films like Frozen might be) and apocalyptic and pseudo-gothic fare like The Hunger Games and the Twilight films, it is always a special delight when a movie offers a sincere look into the lives of young adults. Max Minsky and Me (2007, Max Minsky und ich in German) is just such a movie. One of the few feature films of German filmmaker Anna Justice, Max Minsky and Me offers a well-crafted and often delightful story about the frustrations and joys of young adulthood, set in contemporary Berlin. Based on Holly-Jane Rahlens' award-winning novel Prince William, Maximillian Minsky, and Me (set in 1997, published in 2002) and adapted for the screen by the novelist herself, Max Minsky and Me stars Zoe Moore as Nelly Sue Edelmeister, a bookish Jewish girl who is more interested in astronomy than her imminent bat mitzvah, and Emil Reinke as Max, the sullen, slightly older boy that Nelly coerces into coaching her in basketball. The two teens could not be more different  but as the story unfolds, it is clear that they find in one another precisely what they need.

Told exclusively from the perspective of the two young characters, the film has all the awkwardness and charm of adolescence. Both characters are sharply realized, and Moore and Reinke are more than capable of anchoring the movie. Nelly is a dreamer: she dreams of the stars, of her bright future as an astronomer, and of the dreamy 17-year-old Prince Edouard of Luxembourg  a crown prince who also appears to share her passion for astronomy. When she learns that her school will be sending their girls basketball team to an international tournament hosted by the young Prince, she knows that she has to be on that trip. There is however one problem: sports is the one thing that she doesn't excel at. Add to that the fact that since she skipped a grade  she is both younger and shorter than any girl in her grade, and this might be a problem that even brilliant Nelly can't solve. Enter Maxmillian Minsky, son of the glamorous owner of the cafe where Nelly's hipster/jazz musician father plays trumpet. Max has been having his own challenges  adapting to his parents' recent divorce and move to Berlin  and his reaction has largely been to withdraw into apathy behind locked bedroom doors, and play basketball by himself. Nelly offers him a deal he can't refuse: train her for the basketball tryouts and she'll 'help' him with all the homework he has no interest in doing. They meet every day after school, and slowly learn that neither is what they appear to be.

Adriana Altaras and Monica Bleibtreu in Max Minsky and Me
At the centre of Max Minsky and Me is the burgeoning relationship between Nelly and Max, but along the way, viewers also get a fascinating small portrait of contemporary Jewish Berlin, portrayed with a refreshing lack of defensiveness. Nelly is one of only two Jews in her Berlin classroom, but her resistance to the bat mitzvah that her mother is so intent on organizing has nothing to do with any outsider feelings on Nelly's part, nor any backhanded implications of latent German antisemitism. (Notably, the only other Jewish student also happens to be Nelly's "archenemy" and chief tormentor  the athletic 'mean girl' Yvonne, played Maxime Foerste. This choice seems quite deliberate on the part of Rahlens.) But if Nelly has been skipping Hebrew school to play basketball, it's merely because that she has little identification with Judaism or religion in general: her Jewish-American mother's consistent argument  "I had a bat mitzvah, so you'll have one"  doesn't resonate at all with her, a hyper-rational young scientist who simply doesn't believe in God and can't see any compelling evidence to support such a belief. Her mother Lucy (Adriana Altaras), born and bred in New York City, sprinkles her English-accented German with odd Yiddish idioms that leave Nelly cold. As the story progresses, it becomes more and more clear that the distance between mother and daughter is perhaps more cultural than generational. The gulf in their experiences  the mother growing up Jewish in New York and the daughter growing up Jewish in Berlin  is a subtle but profound element of their relationship, one which the mother seems rather pointedly blind to.  In the end, it is up to Nelly's great-aunt Risa (Monica Bleibtreu), who stayed in hiding in Germany during the war while her sister (Lucy's mother) fled to America to escape the Nazis, to bring Nelly around to the idea. For a Jewish story set in Berlin, the film is actually refreshingly light on references to the Holocaust  and probably more so than a comparable story set in contemporary North America. (It would be fruitful to compare Nelly's journey to the one the title character of Bar Mitzvah Boy goes through in Jack Rosenthal's 1976 BBC teleplay. Both stories do excellent, albeit quite distinct, jobs of reframing the bar/bat mitzvah rituals on terms genuinely comprehensible to a 13-year-old mindset.)

The plot involving Nelly's conniving to get Max to help her may be entirely out of the teen romantic comedy handbook (misrepresentation, concealed motives, and the eventual hurt feelings when all is by necessity revealed), but Justice's execution feels decidedly original, not least because those rom-com tropes are neatly reversed, both by type and gender. (Here it is the girl/nerd whose unthinking manipulations hurt the feelings of the boy/jock.) But more than that, the script itself, which follows the essential narrative of the novel, knows that the best stories, especially those aimed at younger audiences, show rather than tell. Some of the film's original elements demonstrate the strength of Rahlens' adaptation of her own story from the page to a visual medium. For example  a feature which  does not appear in the novel, and which is one of the film's more beautiful elements  Max has an underground clubhouse/hiding place beneath his mom's cafe, replete with an epic subterranean landscape. Nellie's inner life is beautifully represented with vivid colours, swirling stars, swelling music, and providing Max with a parallel, and importantly inverted, inner life radically enriches the film's themes, while preserving the generally sincere realism of the story.

In the end, both Nelly and Max enter the world on their own terms, and Nelly's evolution from keen observer of human life to genuine participant is poignantly represented with a light touch and often with surprising subtlety. Anna Justice seems to have spent most of her career working for German television, but if Max Minsky and Me is any indication, she should step into feature films more often.

Next Sunday February 16 (4pm and 7:30pm), the Toronto Jewish Film Society is screening Max Minsky and Me at the Miles Nadal JCC in downtown Toronto. I will be on hand to introduce and lead a Q & A on the film.