Adapting her own novel for the big screen, German author-director Helen Hegemann makes a polished feature debut with Axolotl Overkill. Pulse firmly on the rapid strobe-lit streets of Berlin, the film is very much a muse on teenage excess and independence, as self-destructive as in can be, with an assured sense of style and impressive visuals to compensate for a lack of originality. Though there isn’t quite as much narrative heft behind it, often falling into repetition and not knowing how to fully capitalise on crucial moments, Hegemann is admirable as she follows sixteen year old Mifti (Jasna Fritzi Bauer) through unstable sexual relationships, a more-is-more approach to drugs, and a desperate desire for rebellion.
Bauer’s self-medicating protagonist is not in a healthy place at any point in the film, reeling from her mother’s death and her detachment from a rich father who doesn’t seem all that present. Though Mifti is under the “care” of her older half-sister Anika (Laura Tonke), in her mind she is not tethered to anything, floating on a precarious cloud of self-indulgence and immediate gratification. Rather than focus on how aimless Mifti has become, Hegemann wastes no time spinning the teen into a cycle of drugs, sex and partying, all anchored with unromantic and blunt language, juxtaposed against the dazzling surrounds of Berlin which are heightened by the director’s consistent dream-like and kinetic tone.
Tales of youth spiralling out of control is as much about the company one keeps as well, and there’s no shortage of a poisonous echo chamber with Mifti’s primary dynamics bouncing off damaged, drug-addicted actor Ophelia (Mavie Hörbiger) and love interest Alice (Arly Jover), an older woman with whom the teen begins an affair between nameless men and hazy drug-addled raves. It’s these relationships which give the actors considerable material to digest, highlighting a strong cast that proves invaluable in deepening the otherwise shallow core around which the film revolves.
Though electric scenes of instant gratification are the life-blood of Overkill, the film overdoses on its own candy-coated ambition, most definitely falling head-first into the style-over-substance pile when Hegemann can’t quite contain her own creation. Instead of focusing on any sort of momentum, the exciting morphs into the mundane until it becomes clear that no amount of visual finesse – as much as it is genuinely exciting to watch – can take Mifti’s arc where it needs to go in order for Axolotl Overkill to be set apart from the dozens of similar films before it.
If nothing else, this is a showcase for Hegemann’s irrepressible style sitting in colourful opposition to more grounded and patient illustrations of youth-in-revolt such as Larry Clark cult-classic Kids. A sense of hopelessness and the trappings of pleasure is shared by both films, but in this case Overkill is unable to stick the landing after flying so high with tunnel vision and dilated pupils.
Review Score: THREE STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
Running Time: 94 minutes
Axoltl Overkill is currently screening as part of Sydney Film Festival. More information and tickets can be found HERE