EIFF 2013: ‘Oh Boy’ is an intelligent and effortless slacker comedy

Oh Boy

Oh Boy

Oh Boy
Written and directed by Jan Ole Gerster
Germany, 2012

Jan Ole Gerster’s debut feature is a smart, breezy comedy that follows 27-year-old slacker, Niko (Tom Schilling), through Berlin over the course of a turbulent day. Despite dropping out of law school two years previously, he still lives off his father’s allowance, resides an empty shell of an apartment and struggles to find the motivation to do anything much at all. After breaking up with his girlfriend, he visits a confrontational psychiatrist, has an excruciating encounter with an emotional neighbour, gets cut off by his father and meets an attractive young woman, Julika (Friederike Kempter), only to find out he used to bully her at school. And, to top it all off, he can’t even seem to find himself a decent cup of coffee.

Gorgeously shot in mellow black and white, Oh Boy channels that other belatedly-coming-of-age comedy, Frances Ha, with the same awkwardness and sense of detachment from everybody else. Niko is a far more downbeat character though, seemingly without dreams or ambitions and passing the days in a state of perpetual ennui. Schilling’s sympathetic performance is key to the film’s success, giving his character a resigned acceptance in the face of some difficult circumstances. Niko is never particularly respectable, but has an endearing, naive honesty, which frequently results in him saying exactly the wrong thing.

The film develops through a series of short scenes, all well-written and amusing in their own right. Initially, it feels episodic, with each encounter apparently set up for comic effect, but it grows into an engaging narrative as the characters begin to recur and Niko invests more and more in what is happening to him. His relationship with Julika is nicely drawn, even if it ends unsatisfactorily, and there is a sense of catharsis towards the end, particularly in the unexpectedly poignant final act. At this stage, Berlin itself also becomes significant; its history is invoked in a very personal way, imbuing the streets with memory and bringing Niko’s lifestyle undogmatically into relief. One of the best moments is a short montage showing the city at sunrise, all empty streets and graffiti. Gerster captures some beautiful angles and the German capital looks stunning in black and white.

Backed by a lackadaisical jazz score, the film is easygoing and unpretentious, much like its protagonist. The events that take place are refreshingly naturalistic and it is only on the odd occasion that it ever feels forced. Gerster wisely refrains from making any major plot developments and measures the tone perfectly, consistently managing to draw big laughs from minor observations. With an engaging central character and strong supporting cast, Oh Boy is effortless, witty and a real charmer; Niko’s long day flies by.

Rob Dickie

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