Review: Be My Star (2001)
It’s rare to see a film about teenage romance that’s as unglamorous as Valeska Grisebach’s Be My Star. Usually, movies simplify teenage romance, something that is inherently messy in real life. Movies tend to clarify motivations, mute uncertainty, and give characters traceable arcs of growth. In contrast, Be My Star leaves all clarity and structure by the wayside in order to capture the anxiety and impulsiveness of teenage romance. In so doing, it strips away any charm or romantic idealization. Instead, it leans into the awkwardness of teenage life, which makes for extremely uncomfortable viewing. Be My Star is perceptive filmmaking about adolescence, but it’s by no means pleasurable art.
Grisebach’s debut feature, Be My Star follows the 14-year-old Nicole (Nicole Glaser), who is on the verge of adulthood and finds herself with plenty of freedom to explore her impulses each evening when her mother leaves for work, leaving Nicole to care for her younger sisters. Parents, or adults in general, are almost entirely absent here. The adolescents are left to pursue their fancy and while away the hours figuring out how to be adults, or playacting as such. The focus on romance is clear from the opening scene, which has Nicole agreeing to go out with another boy after a makeout game. But before their afternoon is even over, she abruptly decides he’s not for her, turning down his invitation to a date the following day. We don’t get a glimpse into Nicole’s mind that clarifies why she changes it. It only matters that she does. She’s young and young people are impulsive. The rest of the film bears this out.
Soon enough, she pairs off with Christopher (Christopher Schops), who’s something of a hotshot in the neighbourhood. When we first meet him, Nicole is making fun of him to her friends, showing us how adolescents often express their emotions in contradictory ways. But she ends up pursuing him, and he her, and their relationship provides the backbone of the film. Grisebach adds no calculated structure to their romance, with a clear progression from flirtation to young love to resentment and so forth. One moment Christopher is clumsily articulating his attraction to her—“Has a guy ever told you you’re as beautiful as the seventh wonder of the world?” he asks her during a moment alone together. Another moment he decides he’s bored with her and breaks up with her. When she starts to cry and demand an explanation of why, he can’t even be bothered to pay attention to her.
Be My Star is obviously low-budget and performed by nonprofessionals (the characters’ names are simply the actors’ names), giving it a realistic veneer that serves the material. But Grisebach’s camera is not entirely indiscriminate. In the aforementioned scene of Christopher breaking up with Nicole, Grisebach makes a point of holding the frame on Nicole wide enough to notice the people sitting on the lawn across the lake in the background. When she cuts to the reverse-shot of Christopher, she captures him looking away from Nicole, clearly watching the people across the lake. The moment hits home how easily teenage affection can turn to disinterest, and even active dislike, but the visual language also emphasizes how easily distracted teenagers are.
If Christopher seems to have the agency in the relationship during the film’s first half, Nicole controls it more in the second half. For instance, after Christopher and Nicole finally consummate their relationship after getting back together, she immediately follows it up with a makeout session with an older boy. She’s not consciously getting revenge on Christopher for his past mistreatment of her. She’s simply following her fancy, which is fickle and unpredictable. The film’s scattershot focus reflects the wildly divergent hormonal swings in teenage emotions.
Be My Star only runs 65 minutes, which is good because the discomfort levels would be unbearable in a longer film. There is truthful observation here and good directorial choices in managing the nonprofessional actors, who are also the right age for their characters (another rarity in cinematic portrayals of youth). But like the teenage romance it depicts, the film is an awkward affair. I don’t need films to necessarily entertain me, but I can’t help but wish this film’s truths were communicated in more palatable narrative and stylistic forms.
6 out of 10
Be My Star (2001, Germany/Austria)
Written and directed by Valeska Grisebach; starring Nicole Glaser, Christopher Schops, Monique Glaser, Jeanine Glaser, Christina Sandke.