Sprockets weekend: Off-side, Brave Story, and the Sprockets awards

Sprockets wrapped up its 2007 programme today and handed out its annual awards. The Audience Choice award went to two films, the live-action Wild Chicks, and animated Azur et Asmar. The young peoples' juries, on the other hand, gave shout-outs to Khan Kluay and Kidz in Da Hood, with another mention for Wild Chicks.

I saw two films to close out my 2007 Sprockets experience: Off-side and Brave Story. The latter is an animated fable from Japan, while the former was pretty much the exact opposite, a gritty tween drama from the Netherlands.

Off-side's listing in the festival guide had warnings about its strong language and mild sexual content, but that didn't stop a parent or two from dragging their kid out by the arm once the "fucks" started flying in this urban drama about an upper-class kid who gets transferred to a new school after he gets into multiple fights. Don, the kid in question, looks like a young Leo DiCaprio, and takes football very seriously. He instantaneously earns the ire of the big-man-on-new-campus, and trouble ensues.

While the film is by no means spectacular, what works about Off-side is its utter lack of pretentiousness or precious moments. Yeah, this is a movie about an outsider kid making good at a new school by helping win the soccer tournament... but there is nary a warm-fuzzy in sight. There's a subplot involving the bully's girlfriend, whom Don is also courting, that I could have done without, but I'm a sucker for a good soccer movie regardless of the age of the competitors, and the sport sequences in Off-side are handled with documentarian flair by director Arend Steenbergen. The director also gets capable performances out of his troupe of young actors, who really managed to remind me what it was like to be on the bottom end of the popularity tree in middle school. I'm not sure that's a good thing.

On the entire other end of the spectrum is Brave Story, an animĂŠ adventure fantasy for kids. A young boy named Wataru finds his way into an alternate world after his father leaves the family and his mother falls ill, and then proceeds to learn some mightily impressive moral fables about accepting disappointments and thinking of others before oneself.

The visual design is terrific even if the animation is a little blocky, and the story is surprisingly complex, with mirror versions of both the protagonist and the chief baddie, who is (in this case) a fairly stirring dark-side version of Wataru anyway, a kid with the exact same motivations in the fantasy world but with less of an ability to be selfless.

There are fantasy battles aplenty and a nice supporting cast of characters who glom onto Wataru as he goes about his journey, and when the moral absolution comes at the end, it feels earned rather than expected, which is a refreshing change.

The audience for Brave Story had a pretty wide demographic, from the kids with their parents, to teenagers and twentysomethings, proving that animĂŠ continues to be underserved in the North American marketplace.

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