What with Lena Dunham’s HBO series Girls generating more buzz than a tazer in a wasp’s nest, these are salad days for shiftless, twentysomething hipsters in popular culture. And, if Jan Ole Gerster’s Oh Boy is anything to go by, feckless self-absorption is well and truly an international concern. This episodic, Berlin-set drama is a skeletal but enjoyably comic character study of a young man who has, by choice, erected an impenetrable wall of irony and disaffection to shield himself from the pressures of the real world.
The ‘boy’ of the title is Niko Fischer (a sallow, likeable Tom Schilling), who we first encounter being perfectly useless to his girlfriend. Their relationship swiftly ends, and he spends the rest of the day drifting listlessly around, meeting a host of colourful characters, including his hard-ass father.
To create the film’s off-kilter tone. Gerster integrates a raft of deadpan (not to mention dead cool) influences into a uniquely Berliner sensibility. Jim Jarmusch’s early films are a clear touchpoint, while the '90s work of the Coen brothers also looms large. Gerster clearly has a fondness for eccentric supporting characters for Niko to play against, even if the time-restricted narrative sometimes feels overdetermined.
Niko’s new neighbour - a burly middle-aged man who tells an overwrought sob story about a wife we never see - plays like a disturbing cross between Fargo’s tragic Mike Yanagita and Barton Fink’s overfriendly, psychotic hotel resident Charlie Meadows. One ongoing plot point sees an increasingly exhausted Niko repeatedly trying and failing to get a coffee. It’s a subtly nightmarish conceit that tips the film into the absurd, and hearkens back to the night of frustration experienced by the protagonist in Martin Scorsese’s black comedy After Hours.
There are clearly elements to Oh Boy that feel culturally specific to Berlin, but its key themes of responsibility, alienation and maturity are pretty much universally accessible. A late-in-the-game swerve into serious territory initially feels jarring, but is necessary in order to tempt Niko out of his funk, and gives the film a layer of emotional depth that it’s hitherto been lacking.
Oh Boy isn’t perfect by any stretch (it runs out of steam before the end, and is tainted by a faint tang of misogyny), but has plenty else to recommend it, including Phillip Kirsamer’s gorgeously dreamy monochrome cinematography, and a jazzy, Woody Allen-esque score. Ultimately, Gerster has crafted a stylish and witty, if somewhat slight arthouse work. The hipsters have been coming for a while. Now they’re staying. Oh boy.
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