Kuba Czekaj ‘s “The Erlprince” is the story of an unnamed Boy (Staszek Cywka) who tests the boundaries of the relationship with his domineering Mother (Agnieszka Podsiadlik) and his father, credited here as the Man (Sebastian Lach). Drawing on Goethe’s “The Erlking”, this fil, adds a poetic and ethereal element to the action, which features fairy tale segments.
The boy, we learn is very intelligent, poor at relationships but good at probing notions of parallel universes but this could be all in his mind. The boy feels everything acutely, whether it is the borderline-Oedipal danger represented by his mother, the pressure of the responsibilities of adulthood represented by his father or simply sexual urges. The world as he knows it is most certainly coming to an end.
The film is driven by atmosphere and not by story. Cinematographer Adam Palenta has done excellent work, in capturing the slick monotony of a neon-lit motorway on a raining night or the otherworldly landscape the boy visits when his reality begins to crack. Although the film might, at first, seem chaotic, there is an evident fierce directorial control in evidence, from the colors used (which make particularly good use of ‘light’ and ‘dark’ imagery) to the oppressive mood. We see the boy face the agonies of choice, in the complex way that every adolescent must pick their own path to adulthood, selecting those in authority they want to listen to or cast aside and ultimately finding some sort of faith in their own beliefs. We don’t just see this teenager grow up, we are with him during the experience.
This film is, at its heart, the tragic story of an adolescent genius with a dysfunctional home life, centering on a physics prodigy whose main obstacle is an ultra-controlling mother. She only wants the best for him, which, unfortunately, means significantly less time for girls and more spent trying to win a science contest. It is not difficult to sympathize with the main protagonist, who is a perpetually angry-faced teen and whose mother’s love comes with terms (namely, do what she says, and never take your eyes off the academic prize).
The film also explores the idea that we can severely damage those most dear to us through loving them too much. In the case of the Boy and the Mother, the latter moves them to a new city in an unfamiliar country, where the high schools are excellent, but the Boy is immediately alienated socially because he does not speak the language. That forces the two to become close. For the boy, the entirety of Mother’s hopes and dreams is a lot to bear.
“The Erlprince” is built around something highly sensible: the need for love and the healing that comes with it. Some will find the ending overly bleak, but it can also be viewed as a clever inversion of the typical conclusion reached by most coming-of-age tales, in which one way or another, the protagonist makes peace with their past.