Wednesday 2 October 2019

Mijn bijzonder rare week met Tess (S. Wouterlood, 2019)

The West Frisian Islands are the backdrop for this hugely enjoyable family drama, which is based on the award-winning novel of the same name by Dutch children's author Anna Woltz.  Mijn bijzonder rare week met Tess is the first film from director Steven Wouterlood, and he shows much promise here, keeping things nice and simple and avoiding the needless flashiness which often mars debut features.  He's aided by a set of winning performances from his cast, all of whom give well-judged turns in a story which features much in the way of friendship, love, family - and kibbeling.

10-year-old Sam (Sonny van Utteren) is on a family holiday on Terschelling when he encounters the slightly older Tess (Josephine Arendsen), who haughtily peppers Sam with seemingly random questions about subjects including, inter alia, Salsa dancing and the German language; as the story progresses, we begin to understand Tess' thirst for knowledge on these topics.  While she initially comes across as rather superior and unappealing, Sam - who obsesses over being the last one left alive in his family, and prepares for this eventuality via timed "aloneness training" - is sufficiently intrigued by Tess, as she seems to promise a bit more excitement than that offered by his family.  Certainly, quite why she's acting so strangely around the couple who are staying at her family's guest house is a mystery which both Sam and the audience would like to clear up.

The film neatly sidesteps a staple of many a coming-of-age yarn in that, contrary to the good-natured wisecracks which emanate from Sam's family, romance isn't at the forefront of Tess and Sam's relationship; admittedly, there is a slight hint of it, but it's by no means the driving force behind what makes this pair want to spend time with each other.  This makes for a refreshing change, as much of the time which might otherwise have been spent lazily plodding through a will-they-won't-they scenario is put to much more interesting use.  Considering the scant running time, there's possibly one character too many in the form of Hans Dagelet's elderly beachcomber (who is admittedly fun to watch), but this is a very minor quibble.

Mijn bijzonder rare week met Tess manages to be a sweet, charming tale, yet one which doesn't overly rely on sentimentality.  The film expertly captures the feel of childhood summer holidays, and in Tess it shows a character who is able to work through some complicated issues; here, there's no dodging the fact that "the best years of your life" can often be very confusing ones.  While this is a family film, there is a small amount of swearing, so it's probably not the best movie to take very young children to; the guidance from the London Film Festival - where it screens on the 6th of October - advises a minimum age of 8.  The LFF screening sold out long before the festival started, but you can - and should - pick up the DVD when it's released in the Netherlands next month.

Darren Arnold