Much ink has been spilled over the inherent shock value in the Ukrainian youth-gone-wild controversy magnet The Tribe. The 2014 Cannes Film Festival darling's disturbing bursts of extreme violence and strong sexual content have helped turn it a polarizing conversation piece.
But I take issue with this Drafthouse Films release, not because of its graphic imagery, or director Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy's decision to film the bruising yarn completely in sign language with no subtitles. (That's one of its more interesting traits.) What derails The Tribe is an aggressive reliance on the hoariest of storytelling clichés. It purports to show an unvarnished depiction of a marginalized group in Ukrainian society, but what's surprising is how generic its plot actually is.
That's too bad, because for at least the first half of this two-hour-plus dissection of institutional malaise, it immerses us in a hermetic world of rituals and behavioral codes that's bracing because there's no safety net for viewers. Slaboshpytskiy is keen on throwing us off the deep end of the pool and trust we'll be able to keep up. This may be a simple, fairly straightforward coming-of-age tale, but it's devoid of the comfort trappings to which we've grown accustomed from a narrative feature.
The film opens at a bus stop, where a teenage boy is seen from afar asking an older woman for directions. Mutual frustration ensues when she realizes the young man cannot hear her. Pay close attention, Slaboshpytskiy appears to be telling us, because I'm going to make you feel the challenges this whippersnapper's has to deal with every day. The next scene gives us our first glimpse of the boarding school for the hearing impaired where much of The Tribe unfolds.
Rather than allow us to sit in and experience what appears to be a school-year kickoff ceremony, the camera holds back. In a series of skillfully executed Steadicam shots, we're introduced to this closed-off subculture, albeit mostly from a distance. For instance, a classroom scene depicting what appears to be a history lesson disrupted by an unruly student is at once familiar and alien. We're on the outside looking in, and the arm's-length remove brings to mind the work of documentarian Frederick Wiseman (Titicut Follies), though as it turns out, not quite possessing that filmmaker's aesthetic rigor.
Until the end credits, we are not told the characters' names, which, in keeping with the rest of the film, is initially refreshing, then all too emblematic of these teens' lack of a distinct personality beyond the broadest of strokes.
Consequently, this reviewer fought but was unable to resist the temptation to come up with alternative names for the more prominent players. For instance, I baptized the impressionable, wet-behind-the-ears Sergey (Grigoriy Fesenko), first seen at the bus station, Nikolai Blankslateoyevich. Nikki, you see, is a new arrival at the school, and it doesn't take long for him to be recruited by the gang of thugs who run the place with an iron fist. They're usually seen walking in single file, keeping a few feet apart from each other à la The Beatles' “Abbey Road” cover. One of these punks – let's call him Boris Waisgaiynich – takes Nikki under his wing … then totally pranks him by having him walk into what he thinks will be his sleeping quarters, only to be startled by two girls – please indulge me here – brunette Olga Leggylenko and blonde Anya Humpalova.
They're none too happy to see the new kid invading their space, especially since Anya's not wearing anything above her waist. (As luck would have it, that character, played by Yana Novikova, is actually called Anya. As in not just the nickname I gave her.)
Rather than show more of the students going about their academic daily grind, Slaboshpytskiy shows more interest in their extracurricular activities. For Olga and Anya, that involves being put in the back of a dilapidated turquoise van and taken to a truck stop to give the horny drivers a good time, for the right price.
Up until this juncture, The Tribe unfolds at a fairly steady clip, chronicling Nikki's initiation, which steadily escalates until he's mugging innocent people out on a desolate street or inside a train. “Kick him if you want to be one of us,” one of the kids seems to be telling Nikki after they gang up on a man leaving a supermarket. When an unexpected mishap lands Nikki the position of lookout for the girls during their working hours, however, he sets his sights on Anya. The affair that ensues starts out as an intriguing power play fueled by money and lust, at least before jealousy rears its ugly head. It also sets the film on a painfully predictable trajectory that shoehorns a tired conflict between the male characters and yanks the film's focus away from its heretofore central portrayal of disaffected youth.
And thus The Tribe morphs into a third-rate soap opera in which all the pieces in Slaboshpytskiy's bleak scenario fall into place exactly as you'd expect them to play out. The cast, comprised of deaf-mute nonprofessionals, is hardly to blame here. The director's decision to shoot the bulk of the film in long shots, with few, if any, cuts within scenes, places a burden on the otherwise well-cast actors, one they're increasingly ill-equipped to handle. The characters are thus reduced to shrill players in a very creaky plot, but even on those cheap terms, there's no weight to their drastic actions, and what's supposed to come across as a hard-hitting denouement for the members of The Tribe's tribe musters little more than a weak “so what?” A shrug-worthy conclusion to a movie that started out full of promise suggests that, for all its good intentions – and none-too-subtle attempts to draw a parallel between these morally corrupt denizens and those of the country they live in – The Tribe ultimately doesn't have all that much to say. For all the deafening mayhem on display, it all but loses its voice.
The Tribe is now playing at the Miami Beach Cinematheque. Go to mbcinema.com for showtimes and tickets.