There are teenagers who rebel by skipping school and doing drugs. They get caught on the streets and returned to school. Stevie, on the other hand, gets in trouble when she tries to attend school. The teacher notices her, recognizes that she isn't enrolled and gives her the boot.
The Unpolished follows the aimless life of a 13-year-old girl growing up with drug-trafficking parents who don't give her the boundaries or order she needs. Her dad just got out of prison. Her mother just inherited a house from her parents, who were apparently strict and disapproving. Stevie's parents are the complete opposite, with no notion of order or stability. New people show up at the house randomly while others vanish with no announcement.
German director Pia Marais has crafted an observant, surprising and raw study of life outside of the societal norm, carried marvelously by young actress Ceci Schmitz-Chuh. The film is a unique portrayal of childhood and its many forms, presented in a carefully considered puzzle.
The editing presents the scenes in chronological order, but doesn't let them unfold in a traditional manner. Marais tends to enter scenes in medias res, and/or cut them off before they've reached their shapely conclusion. Other times there are jump cuts in the middle of scenes, cutting off sentences to jump forward in time. As such, The Unpolished requires constant thought and attention to understand Stevie's situation and feelings.
Some things are unnecessarily elliptical, such as the origin of one of Stevie's friends, a pre-teen boy. In his first scene, he arrives in a car with Stevie's family, suggesting that he's staying at their house, presumably the son of one of their friends. But later it's suggested that his parents are completely different, from a more stable household.
Other times, however, the structure creates a dreamlike state--a collage of memories. It's as if these are the fragments of life that stick in Stevie's mind, the moments that have the strongest affect on her emotional state and transition into adulthood. In his essay in the DVD booklet, Brad Stevens astutely draws attention to a scene in which family friend Ingmar throws Stevie into a swimming pool, and then looks in the pool, worried about the girl, who isn't rising back up. We cut to a new scene before the tension is released, and we never see her come up alive. In another moment, earlier in the film, the police stop the family, look at their suspicious papers and ask to search the car. Before we see the officer's findings, the film cuts to a shot of Stevie leaning her head against the car window.
Marais manages to pull off her experiments in structure largely because her cast is so strong. If there wasn't a clear sense of who these people are, it would have potentially made the film too confusing.
Georg Friedrich stands out as Ingmar, the closest of the parents' friends who has a loving, playful relationship with Stevie. There are clear, uncomfortable sexual undertones to the relationship, and Marais follows these to a surprising and honest conclusion in one of the film's best scenes. Ultimately, the secret to the film is its understanding that everyone is a person, whether a layabout, a criminal or a philanderer. They make mistakes, they hurt the ones they love, and have trouble admitting that sometimes the best thing you can do for a person is set them free.
Second Run's PAL DVD is a UK release, but testing revealed that it isn't region-coded and will work in any PAL-compatible DVD player.
The DVD features a nice 1.85:1 16x9 transfer that maintains the film's raw visuals. The film was shot on Super 16 with naturalistic tendencies, resulting in a high-speed, grainy picture and dynamic lighting that works perfectly for the film's mood. If you don't enjoy high-grain cinematography, this film probably isn't for you, as the grain is pretty thick. While grain can be problematic on DVD compression, the patterns hold up well without taking on any distracting characteristics.
The colors are earthy and warm. Details are sharp and well-rendered, although at times the photographic properties render the image a bit hazy--this is especially noticeable during scenes lit from the red-light of a neon sign. When rooms are supposed to look high-key, there is no haze.
The film comes with its original stereo soundtrack, which includes German French, English and possibly smatterings of other languages. It's easy to appreciate the ambient noise, given the film's sparse but compelling score. The audio levels are natural and the tones immersive.
There are optional English subtitles. It would be nice if the disc included a second track for the hearing impaired that included subtitles to the English portions of the film (especially since some of that English is heavily accented). Curiously, the subtitles are turned off by default, even though the disc is a UK release.
The only feature on the disc is a 16-minute Interview with Pia Marais, conducted in English, contains discussions of the inspiration for the film and the delicate process of working with a young child actress. Marais comes off as intelligent and thoughtful, and offers insight into her process.
12-page color booklet featuring an essay by critic Brad Stevens. Stevens has an odd chip on his shoulder--he thinks Michael Haneke's Caché is overrated, and because of that he launches an attack that feels out of place in a discussion of The Unpolished. He undermines his piece, which makes some astute observations, by opening with a rip on an unrelated film instead of his thoughts on what makes his subject so special. Marais and Haneke are trying to accomplish different things, and it's pointless to present them as dichotomous entities.
The Unpolished may require some effort to import, but will be worth it for fans of foreign art films and delicate character studies.
Jeremy Mathews has been subjecting films to his criticism since 2000. He has contributed to several publications, including Film Threat, Salt Lake City Weekly, the Salt Lake Tribune, In Utah This Week and The Wasatch Journal. He also runs the blog The Same Dame and fronts the band NSPS.