Desi’s an eleven-year-old Dutch girl. She has all the classic problems of an eleven-year-old: Who’s her best friend on the playground? Should she have a boyfriend? Which secondary school will she get into? On top of that she has extra burdens to bear – her mum committed suicide when she was a baby, her dad’s a slacker, her dad’s girlfriend is hyper and looks like she might walk out at any moment, and each day when Desi gets out of school she has to negotiate by mobile phone to find out if she’s allowed back to her dad’s chaotic houseboat or if she has to sleep at her gran’s cheerless house, and eat boiled cabbage. As if that wasn’t enough, Desi also has to cope with Maria Ramos’ film crew following her around.
It must have been an intrusive experience for Desi, but this feature-length documentary is a tour-de-force access into a child’s-eye-view of her own world. Unmediated by any commentary, the camera captures moments of private drama, like the face of Desi’s best friend crumpling as the school advisor announces she’s not going to the Middle Secondary she’d hoped for, but to what the Dutch unceremoniously call ‘Lower School’. Or when Desi asks her Dad why her mum got suicidally depressed, he says so precisely the wrong thing, blaming the kid for her mother’s post-natal depression, that you cringe for both of them.
Despite this in-your-face closeness to the characters, I found it a surprisingly alienating film to watch. The production is glossy, the shooting exquisite, but the result is curiously listless and over-controlled. It is as if director Ramos has borrowed the idioms of drama, giving her scenes a composed and scripted feel, but there’s simply not enough drama unfolding in Desi’s story to justify this cinematic style, and I was left wondering uncomfortably how much Ramos had set up. It’s not that I’m a purist who demands that all documentary is served raw. Reconstructions or set-up scenarios have a perfectly legitimate and proud place in creative filmmaking; but in this case I simply felt unconvinced and a bit cheated. Perhaps I’m too cynical, I’d love to be proved wrong and discover the whole film is as observational as it purports to be. But the sight of Desi and her pal acting out Desi’s tortured home life with a Barbie and an Action Man, for example, seemed too close to a child psychiatry textbook to be believable or spontaneous. And the opening sequence of three girls in the woods, discovering and burying a dead bird, giving Desi a clunky cue for announcing her own mum’s death, felt too twee to be true.