Teen angst. Everyone has had it; hell, I still have it and I’m 24 (today is my birthday when this is published). It’s generally an integral part of our shaping as adults by going through the hormonal and emotional rollercoaster that is being a teenager. Given our circumstances, some of us have it easier than others, but it’s a part of life that lets us explore the different types of people we could try to be when growing up. Many films cover the complex nature of teen angst, from Catherine Hardwicke’s gritty Thirteen, to Olivia Wilde’s funny and airy Booksmart, even down to the Harry Potter series of fantasy films, it’s far from an untouched subject. It’s such a universal subject that there are films all over the world that touch on it, with Sabrina Mertens’s Time of Moulting (Fellwechselzeit), direct from Germany’s Film Academy of Baden-Württemberg (Filmakademie Baden-Württemberg), tackling it in a far darker way than I’ve seen in quite a long time.
And yet, it goes almost nowhere doing it.
Stephanie (Zelda Espenschied as a child, Miriam Schiweck as a teenager) is a child living in 1970s West Germany with her mother (Freya Kreutzkam) and father (Bernd Wolf) in a small apartment in a small, unnamed city. Growing up, Stephanie witnesses her father’s cold ambivalence towards her grow as her mother’s mental state slowly deteriorates over the years. Stephanie begins to let her childhood curiosity and fears take shape in darker elements of her personality as a teenager, taking her angst and frustration out on her family and herself in increasingly disturbing ways.
I feel as if I’m giving the later portion of Time of Moulting’s synopsis a little too much credit, if only because the film doesn’t really go anywhere with its plot at any point. The entirety of the brief, 80-minute runtime is fixed as some sort of build-up to a catastrophic event meant to shake the viewers that simply never comes to be. The film does arguably get darker in its second half following an older Stephanie, but never does the film interest me in the characters or the story enough to feel any sort of suspense surrounding their living situation. It’s uneasy in a way that has no meaning, payoff, or explanation simply because of how coldly distant the film is, keeping it from being engaging.
Even the angst of Stephanie often feels a bit unexplained, as the film leaves so much to the viewer’s imagination that should at least have some explanation to it. The film is subtle to the point that we lose many of the narrative points that lead to the character feeling how she feels and doing what she does. It comes across as unqualified and strangely out of place as the film plods towards its underwhelming finale.
Stylistically, despite the narrative coldness, Mertens does have an eye behind the camera, creating a stylishly drab confined space for the characters to inhabit, which often feels more like a character than any of the human actors themselves (who do what they can with the empty material). There is a competency as a director shown here that makes the entire experience feel a bit more frustrating than it already does, simply because she does show so much promise.
It’s not that Time of Moulting is an objectively bad film, as I’m very sure it will have those singing its praises all the same, but there’s an emptiness to the film that makes the entire film feel moderately pointless by the film’s final shot. There are no interpersonal stakes that make the film feel urgent or thematically engaging, and without anywhere to go, we’re just left watching a teenager with a moderately sad life just…live a moderately sad life. There is no “point A to point B” movement with the plot here, and, much like its singular setting, it makes the entirety of Time of Moulting feel stuck in place.
Available on VOD during the 2020 Fantasia International Film Festival, August 20 -September 2, 2020.
For more information, head to the official Time of Moulting (Fellwechselzeit) website.
Final Score: 1.5 out of 5.