Sundance Review: This Is Not Berlin

Score:  B+

Director:  Hari Sama

Cast:  Zabiani Ponce de Léon, José Antonio Toledano, Mauro Sánchez Navarro

Running Time:  115 Minutes

Rated:  NR

"The only true currency in this bankrupt world is what you share with someone else when you're uncool."

This is the sage advice rock critic Lester Bangs (Philip Seymour Hoffman) shares with aspiring writer William Miller (Patrick Fugit) in Almost Famous. I couldn't help but be reminded of Cameron Crowe's film throughout the vibrant coming-of-age film This Is Not Berlin, especially in scenes where Carlos (Xabiani Ponce de León) learns the ways of the world from his hip-but-grounded uncle Esteban (director Hari Sama).

Much like that film, a teenager finds himself immersed in a very adult world, only this time the setting is 1986 Mexico instead of 1973 California. And instead of rock music, it's the world of avant-garde art. This Is Not Berlin is also a lot more frank about sex, sexuality and drug use. In fact, it's one of the most free, least judgmental films about the choices people make that I can recall seeing.

Carlos and his best friend Gera (José Antonio Toledano) do things a lot of teenagers do: get in fights, sneak peaks at their dads' porn collections, smoke near windowsills so their parents won't find out. And they desperately want to be cool. But the only cool person they know is Gera's sister Rita (Ximena Romo, who reminds of every girl who was too cool for me in high school). She's in a punk band and can sneak them into the bar they frequent.

And that one night changes both of their lives, as Carlos joins an anarchist art collective run by Nico (Mauro Sánchez Navarro) and Gera falls under the spell of a predatory drug dealer (David Montalvo). And they both quickly experience the highs and lows of their new experiences as their friendship falls apart.

This Is Not Berlin also pulls off the rare feat of being about pretentious people without being pretentious itself. The film even takes time to critique its own characters, with an art historian chastising the group for shamelessly ripping off European artists and partying endlessly while their friends are dying of AIDS. And it subtly critiques the absentee parents of Carlos, Gera and Rita, blinded by their own privilege and addictions to see their kids struggling.

The film also features an incredible soundtrack, providing an effective snapshot of a city, country and kid growing up and moving forward.


About Kip Mooney

Kip Mooney
Like many film critics born during and after the 1980s, my hero is Roger Ebert. The man was already the best critic in the nation when he won the Pulitzer in 1975, but his indomitable spirit during and after his recent battle with cancer keeps me coming back to read not only his reviews but his insightful commentary on the everyday. But enough about a guy you know a lot about. I knew I was going to be a film critic—some would say a snob—in middle school, when I had to voraciously defend my position that The Royal Tenenbaums was only a million times better than Adam Sandler’s remake of Mr. Deeds. From then on, I would seek out Wes Anderson’s films and avoid Sandler’s like the plague. Still, I like to think of myself as a populist, and I’ll be just as likely to see the next superhero movie as the next Sundance sensation. The thing I most deplore in a movie is laziness. I’d much rather see movies with big ambitions try and fail than movies with no ambitions succeed at simply existing. I’m also a big advocate of fun-bad movies like The Room and most of Nicolas Cage’s work. In the past, I’ve written for The Dallas Morning News and the North Texas Daily, which I edited for a semester. I also contributed to Dallas-based Pegasus News, which in the circle of life, is now part of The Dallas Morning News, where I got my big break in 2007. Eventually, I’d love to write and talk about film full-time, but until that’s a viable career option, I work as an auditor for Wells Fargo. I hope to one day meet my hero, go to the Toronto International Film Festival, and compete on Jeopardy. Until then, I’m excited to share my love of film with you.