Growing pains and familial cultural pride are the true and spirited lessons in “The History Student”

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The History Student
Written and Directed by Graham Jones
Ireland/Poland, 2015

Irish filmmaker Graham Jones continues to enthusiastically personalize the unassuming human moments with inspirational, quirky touches of introspection and reflection. In Jones’s sixth feature film The History Student, we are treated to a different kind of coming-of-age tale that is refreshingly off-kilter, old-fashioned and heart-warming. Sure, the tendency with most contemporary coming-of-age sagas is to emphasize the exaggerated and familiar angst-ridden sentiments that strain to capture the mindset of bewildered youth. There can be something said for the sensationalism of struggle and understanding in the eyes of raging adolescence worldwide.

However, The History Student feels understated in its challenging message of a young boy’s exploration for self-identity and self-discovery because it is so quiet and radiant in its low-key elegance. In fact, Jones manages to skillfully incorporate this growing pains exposition with a resourceful juggling act that targets the curiosities in cultural awareness, familial ties, nature-oriented soul-searching and the quest to find answers to philosophical inquiries regarding alien life forms. Hence, The History Student is ambitious in its embracing of one youngster’s wonderment for the mysteries of a changing world around him.

Jones (The Randomers, The Green Marker Scare and How to Cheat in the Leaving Certificate) is instrumental in generating a passionate and delightfully inquisitive performance from the film’s young star Aidan Jones as the red-haired and bright-eyed precocious seven-year-old Filmonek, an Irish lad sent to spend an adventurous summer with his mother (Kasia Wisniewska) in her native homeland of Poland. Craftily, Jones sets the stage for his baby-faced protagonist to take on the burden of living and learning a whole fresh approach to his young existence. In particular, the bonding between a mother-and-son tag team in this movie feels honest and genuine. Both youngster Jones and Wisniewska are effectively convincing and poignant as the on-screen pair linked by childhood memories, mythological heresay, the love for animals and the landscape they roam on and of course the devotion to ethnic identification.

The boundless Filemonek is determined to find a sense of revelation and resolution in the various critters that he encounters and studies so closely. Admittedly, the contemplative tyke confesses his admiration for the wildlife he cozies up to so comfortably. One of the earliest one-on-one “chats” that Filemonek holds is with a stout pigeon on the sidewalk that becomes an instant feathered friend to the caring kid that cannot help but nurture the bulky bird. Soon, Filemonek would form a connection with an assortment of creatures that include the random presence of kittens, frogs, cows, insects, etc.

For the most part, Filemonek’s mother is playful, patient and accommodating. Still, she is quite firm and insists that her son not speak English and try to grasp his Polish roots through speaking the language so that he fully appreciates this particular side of his heritage. Indeed, Filemonek is the chip off the old block because he mirrors what fascinates his mother–or at least when she was his age growing up. The preoccupation with UFOs, fishing, the depths of the nearby lake where perceived monsters are hiding…this is all common ground for the intuitive wonder boy and his equally impish Mommy Dearest. It is even nice to see the patriarch of the family (Andrzej Grajoszek) have his time with his grandson because he was the same source that influenced his mother during her impressionable younger years.

Still, even Filemonek’s mother cannot believe how engrossed her son is into the realm of alien beings thus causing him to interrogate each beast he greets with the puzzled line “what planet are you from?” The real odyssey occurs when the little scamp ventures out into the woods and along the lake as he investigates his surroundings with deep contemplation. Not only does Filemonek tackle the rigors of his mother’s Polish tongue but he must also seek solace in the tranquil ecosystem that has him baffled and bemused by the beliefs of his own wandering eyes.

The History Student is stimulating because it presents the aforementioned coming-of-age story about the structure of family-related coding seeped in traditional reminiscences of cultural pride, the thirst for life lessons through nature and nurture and of course, the reliable facets of generational emotional reinforcement. The key selling point is the heart of the relationship between Filemonek and his mother–a duo lovingly joined at the hip as they both tiptoe through the rituals of revealing conversation. When Filemonek pesters his mother about the concept of aliens and she goes into storytelling mode there is an indescribable sweetness and frank observation about more at stake than just knowing an impressive species of fish that exists in the very waters the treasured tandem float on endlessly.

What triggers The History Student so poignantly is the infectious soundtrack that strikes the film’s contemplative and lyrical vibes so thoughtfully. Jones never fails to use his colorful and quaint scenic setting as a vibrant canvas to paint the solid eccentricities of his featured players. The collaborative meshing of self-realization through the language of discovery and identity completion definitely makes for some subtle good grading for the thought-provoking Student.

–Frank Ochieng

Graham Jones’ films are available to watch at grahamjones.ie