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AXOLOTL OVERKILL is a Must-See Manic Pixie Blast of Youth in Revolt (Sundance Review)

AXOLOTL OVERKILL is a Must-See Manic Pixie Blast of Youth in Revolt (Sundance Review)

With a firework sensibility of joy and agony, Axolotl Overkill practically burns down the screen. The film from 24-year-old writer/director Helene Hegemann is a spree of bored, bright youth in rebellion against nothing in particular, cut together (by German editing icon Bettina Böhler) to flirt with magical realism while hangover vomiting into a Dolce and Gabbana bag.

The film, based on Hegemann’s controversial novel, revolves around a 16-year-old Berlin pinball named Mifti (Jasna Fritzi Bauer) who bounces with impish delight between sex with an older woman, Alice (Arly Jover), disrespecting her school administrators, a wealthy family of enablers, step-sister Anika (Laura Tonke) trying to play parent, the pain of losing her mother to a heart condition, and her new famous friend Ophelia (Mavie Hörbiger), whose access to cocaine and interesting party pals come in handy.

In a sense, it makes a manic pixie dream girl the star of her own movie.

Mifti is a force of nature, confident in all things, undaunted by authority or convention, uninhibited in her consumption. She elevates LOLj/k to a life philosophy, but she’s not the wispy moron that usually flutters through movies like this. Half of what makes her so dangerous is her fierce, self-aware intelligence. Bauer–known for playing these nasty youth roles back home in Germany–owns every frame with both leonine confidence and an unnerving comfort with every dark scenario.

Unlike the bodily exploration of Wetlands or the sexy-fish-over-her-head taboo of HavocAxolotl Overkill manages to treat youthful sexuality with both respect and reality–recognizing the dangerous consequences of the party-bound lifestyle without adding an ounce of extra shame or getting too luridly hygienic.

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That’s partially because Mifti’s adventures are based on whim more than malice. She doesn’t seem intent on grinding herself into the ground with booze and anonymous sex because of some deep-seated trauma she has to face, so much as she’s simply open to the next fun thing in life.

That’s the shared, secret language that guides every character. Like an improv troupe, they share the deep intimacy of accepting each other’s wacky ideas without question. Maybe that’s deciding to bail on a restaurant right after sitting down and ordering 5 mineral waters. Maybe that’s deciding to have sex with the cab driver who just dropped off the date you made out with earlier. Maybe that’s bringing your new water-based pet to the hottest nightclub in Berlin. Whatever feels right. Acceptance is the watchword.

And, yes, the axolotl. For those who don’t know, it’s an adorable mole salamander that stays permanently, like Mifti and friends, in its larval stage. More than metaphors, they also look like creatures Harry Potter might study, which ties nicely into the animal-based magical realism Axolotl Overdrive dips its toes into. These moments-randomly finding some llamas, meeting a unicorn on a walk of shame through the forest–feel like downing a packet of Pop Rocks with a smile already on your face.

Even we, the viewers, get our own dreamlike visions, leaving Mifti and her friends behind occasionally to enjoy a captivating dance sequence that seems inserted into the film as a reminder that writer/director Hegemann is the one guiding the whimsy. A project this frenetic runs the risk of being a confusing mess, but Böhler and Hegemann manage to build something with a quick rhythmic impulse that feels like constructive A.D.D. There’s a grand clarity at work, even when we jump in time or enter a potential fantasy mindset.

As for the ensemble, Jover is smoldering as a mature foil. She’s also into parties, obviously cool with bedding underage girls, and makes a ton of money through illegal means, but she’s grounded. Calmer. Content. Mifti is also drawn to Ophelia–played like a caged tiger by Hörbiger–with her mercurial state of mind and celebrity status. They hit it off immediately, sharing the comfort of being impulsive with another person who isn’t judging you. Here again that theme of acceptance emerges. So much of the uptempo diversions are underscored by Mifti’s need to be in control, to offer it temporarily to someone else, or to respond after losing it.

Everything comes together beautifully to craft a whirlwind portrait that’s mischievous, smart, and substantial.

5 out of 5 larval stage burritos

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Images: Vandertastic

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