Review by Sean Boelman
Marcus Lenz’s Rival is one of those movies that is so unabashedly bizarre that one will finish the movie not knowing how they should feel. Fumbling some of its weightier themes but providing an intriguing watch nevertheless, this film is probably going to be divisive if only because viewers will be torn on its content.
The movie follows a young boy who relocates to Germany to live with his illegally-working mother and the older man with whom she has taken up, only for things to change for him when she falls ill. The story doesn’t follow the usual beats, but also doesn’t feel entirely unpredictable, settling in an effectively discomforting middle ground of anticipation.
Admittedly, it does take a while for the film’s conflict to get moving, but Lenz manages to keep the pacing up nevertheless. The movie is made so nerve-wracking by the fact that the viewer expects something to happen and will continue to think that the moment is coming, only for things to proceed as normal… until they don’t.
At its core, this is a family drama about a child experiencing jealousy over his mother’s divided attention. And then there’s also the buddy comedy bonding element that happens between the protagonist and his new companion. Still, Lenz shoots the film like a thriller, focusing on the innate tension and suspense in the interactions.
One of the most intriguing things about the movie is that the character development is so unorthodox. Quite frankly, the protagonist comes across as a brat. However, even if the audience can’t identify with his sentiments towards the adorable old man who becomes his eponymous opponent, he’s entirely sympathetic nevertheless.
Young actor Yelizar Nazarenko does an excellent job of carrying the film. Unlike a lot of movies led by children, this role is particularly ambiguous, requiring much more nuanced emotions rather than the big, flashy shows of passion, and Nazarenko pulls it off gracefully. Supporting actor Udo Samel is also great.
That said, Lenz misses a huge opportunity in not going into enough depth about the theme of migrant workers in Europe. This had all the elements to be a hard-hitting sociopolitical commentary about important issues, and instead, it’s a relatively small-scale genre picture. Perhaps this was his intent, but it also implies a lack of awareness.
For better or worse, Rival is definitively not the film that it sounds like on paper. It’s something darker, more challenging, and perhaps less insightful than what is promised, but it’s definitely not like anything else out this year.
Rival screened at the 2020 AFI FEST which ran October 15-22.