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MRQE Top Critic

Muscle Shoals

Even if the Muscle Shoals sound isn't on your iPod, you'll like seeing where it came from —Marty Mapes (review...)

Etta sings in Muscle Shoals

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If you buy a ticket to The Tribe, the first thing you’ll see on screen is a title card explaining that film is in sign language there are no translations or subtitles. It’s probably intended a warning to lazy or confused audiences, but it feels more like writer/director Miroslav Slaboshpitsky’s way of patting himself on the back for being edgy.

Bleak House

Smokin' ain't allowed in school
Smokin’ ain’t allowed in school

The story takes place at a boarding school for the deaf. A new boy shows up; he is our surrogate as we learn how the school works. I thought of him as New Boy. The end credits list character names, but unless you speak sign language, you won’t know who’s who. I’ll call our protagonist New Boy.

The film is set in autumn and winter. The school and environs look cold and damp. Graffiti on abandoned-looking buildings of tile and brick make post-Soviet Ukraine look bleak.

Slaboshpitsky and cinematographer Valentyn Vasyanovych use lots of long takes and fluid Steadicam shots. They seem to be going for the same effect as Ruben Östlund in Play, using the inescapable reality of long takes to make you feel trapped.

The setting is appropriate for Slaboshpitsky’s dark story, which includes rape, murder, prostitution, abortion, and pimping — all committed by young people. If you’re not up for a downer, stay away from The Tribe.

Cruel School

Even at Hogwart’s, there was cruelty between cliques of children. But this school for the deaf is no Hogwart’s. New Boy survives his initiation and lands fairly high in the unspoken pecking order. The boy who first takes him in and shows him the ropes (let’s call him Ropes) introduces New Boy to the Oldest Boy. Together they form a sort of gang. They parcel out New Boy’s smuggled candy to the youngest boys, then shake them down for their money.

There’s a brief classroom scene where the teacher points to a map of Europe — Turkey, then the Alps, then Russia — and instead of a bell sounding the end of class, a light flashes.

Subtitles really would have helped.

Instead, what I got from the scene is a sliver of evidence that the story is actually set at a school instead of a flophouse. There appears to be at least one classroom, and at least one teacher. Most of the rest of the film involves the young people doing things outside of school.

Edgy, Provocative, Implausible

Why The Tribe is even set at a school seems contrived. It feels like Slaboshpitsky wants a justification for shocking us with the bad behavior of young people.

The risky behavior — smoking, fighting, a mugging, drinking, prostitution — gets even more serious before the film is over. One of the girls goes to a back alley abortionist and makes some of the film’s few vocalizations as she pants in pain.

But I never really believed this was a real school, even in a near-failed-state such as Ukraine.

The only reliably present adult is a janitor/handyman who helps Ropes and New Boy pimp two of the girls at a nearby truck stop. The run-down grounds don’t look lived-in; there is a garbage-filled basement room, the doors don’t lock, the floors are co-ed... nothing suggests an actual institution.

The film ends on a virtuoso Steadicam shot that starts outside, ends on a high floor inside, and involves the film’s most grisly scenes.

There is probably an audience for edgy, arty, provocative films like this. For me, I prefer a story and action that are justified by real characters.