“The Tribe” marks the audacious and haunting — yet ultimately frustrating — directorial debut of Ukrainian filmmaker Miroslav Slaboshpitsky. Strikingly original and formally elegant, this tale of a group of deaf high school students running amok on and off the hermetic campus of a boarding school outside Kiev is at once exhilarating and deflating.
Slaboshpitsky deserves credit for coming up with a brilliant conceit and sticking to it with uncompromising rigor. He’s filmed “The Tribe” entirely in Ukrainian Sign Language, with no subtitles, music or sound effects, leaving viewers to piece together the plot and dialogue themselves. The fact that he applies such vision and discipline to a story that winds up hewing less to the contours of probing drama than cheap, exploitative horror does little to detract from the movie’s main take-away: In Slaboshpitsky and his collaborators, the film world welcomes prodigiously promising new talents.
“The Tribe” begins with a wide shot of a bus stop, where commuter conveyances come and go, and where a teenage boy is seen asking for directions by signing. Later, the adolescent — a new student named Sergey (Grigory Fesenko) — arrives at his destination: a school for deaf teenagers at which he’s alternately ignored, teased and hazed. Eager to fit in, Sergey passes the tests posed by a group of young toughs whose black suits make them look like slouching rejects from “Reservoir Dogs.” Quickly, what at first seem to be typical, if hard-edged, adolescent pranks give way to thievery, prostitution and violence bordering on the pathological.
Filmed entirely with nonprofessional young actors, “The Tribe” recalls early silent films of course, but also such alarmist cinematic portraits of the young as “Kids” — especially in its confrontational sexuality — and the so-called “problem pictures” of the 1950s. Slaboshpitsky has done an outstanding job of finding natural performers to play the guarded, explosively temperamental core group, especially Fesenko and Yana Novikova, who plays the heedlessly promiscuous girl Sergey falls in love with.
But what makes “The Tribe” unforgettable is the filmmaker’s attention to composition and staging, with camera work by cinematographer Valentyn Vasyanovych that goes from implacable stasis to poetic fluidity with seamless, expressive ease. Slaboshpitsky frames his problematic protagonists with painterly meticulousness, their feral posturing and nakedness conveyed with improbable beauty.
There are more than a few excruciating sequences of both intentional and accidental violence. Yet as the on-screen events grow in seriousness, the filmmaker seems intent on challenging the audience’s reflex to sympathize with differently abled characters, thereby restoring to them a far more complex sense of agency and moral ambiguity.
In other words: Helen Keller these kids ain’t. And the elders in their midst are far from miracle workers. Unfortunately, “The Tribe” goes too far to prove that pessimistic point, succumbing to glib nihilism when a more nuanced lens on human frailty and possibility would have been welcome, if not more mature. In Slaboshpitsky’s view, the state of nature is nasty, brutish and silent. As he brings his characters to what seem to be preordained, increasingly gruesome ends, our horror is exponentially compounded by the fact that we never hear it coming.
Unrated. At AFI Silver. Contains graphic violence, nudity, sexuality, smoking and disturbing thematic material. In Ukrainian Sign Language, without subtitles. 132 minutes.