Zero Point (Nullpunkt)
Estonia (2014) Dir. Mihkel Ulk
Some people just can’t get a break. They toe the line, are good to others, work hard, and always do what is right, yet they are the ones who end up royally shafted whilst others coast through life with a copy book soaked in blots.
Johannes (Märt Pius) is a studious high school student and aspiring poet, but life with his bipolar mother Ema (Epp Eespäev), and her refusal to take her medication, is tearing the family apart. After a severe violent outburst causes his father (Raimo Pass) and sister Kreete (Kärt Tammjärv) to move out, Johannes is left to look after his mother alone.
In pursuing his dream as a poet, Johannes enrols at an elite high school and things seem well at first until some erroneously based gossip from his previous school suddenly sees him turned pariah. From here things just spiral out of control – let down by his friends, embroiled in a plagiarism case, is targeted by a local street thug, and constantly fighting with his mother, Johannes finally reaches breaking point and start to fight back.
There has only been one other film from Estonia to feature on this site, and that was the bonkers arthouse flick November, so there is a sense of relief that a film like Zero Point exists so my take on Estonian cinema is not informed by this one surreal experience. In a case of polar opposites, this adaptation of the novel by Margus Karu is mainstream in every sense but by no means a fluff piece.
Mihkel Ulk’s debut is by the numbers in how it steadily builds up the seemingly endless catalogue of misery for Johannes, but has some aces up its sleeve to work as a sort of anti-coming of age drama. This is realised by how Johannes doesn’t follow the same learning curve other protagonists do, and it is the people around him who in fact need to understand the world doesn’t revolve around them.
Opening with Ema’s meltdown when she suddenly interrupts the family dinner by asking why they all hate her and attacks Kreete, we know this is going to be an easy ride for anyone. Rescued by a third married sibling, Ege (Mari Abel), the siblings flee the home with only Johannes returning as his father has moved in with his mother, and Kreete all the way to Bangkok (presumably via a school exchange programme).
All seems well at Johannes’ new school, welcomed by the rich kids in their expensive attire and two girls, Paula (Brigitte Susanne Hunt) and Bianka (Saara Kadak) – both blonde, natch – taking a shine to the newcomer. But the wheels start to come off one by one, starting with snooty class rep Liisa (Linda Kolde) hearing an inaccurate story about an misinterpreted act of consideration by Johannes from a friend in his old school and taking her word as gospel.
Prior to being thrown to the curb and landing with an almighty bump, a school alum, music producer Gunnar Post (Tambet Tuisk), arrives for a visit which gives Johannes a chance to show him some of his poems for possible use as lyrics. Can you guess how that turned out? Go to the top of the class if you said “The lyrics turn up in a new pop song which Post claimed he wrote”.
Further grief comes from two of his friends, dropout drug dealers Bert (Reimo Sagor) and Esko (Henrik Kalmet), thanks to an errant bag of weed in Johannes’ coat pocket found by the police. And there is hot head Zaiid (Suur Papa) baying for Johannes’ blood for the heinous act of talking to his ex-girlfriend.
For the best part of 80-minutes it is one thing after another, relentlessly raining down on Johannes, who barely knows what he has done to deserve most of it, and whilst some are a little contrived – the lyrics dispute is screenwriting 101 – it drains the audience as much as it does Johannes’ patience. It might be the lack of originality in the writing or the how every slap in the face becomes more unjust and increasingly pettier, as it all happens to just one person.
Earlier, I mentioned aces up Ulk’s sleeve. One is the incredibly confident, subtly realised performance from Märt Pius, a John Cena-Matt Damon hybrid facially but robust in his embracing of the humanity of his character, nether underplaying or overplaying to make Johannes not just sympathetic but real. He may come across a tad too mature for a teen but as a good kid, he isn’t so Hollywood saintly we’d dislike him.
The other ace is the last thirty minutes when Johannes decides enough is enough. First, he doesn’t go postal, which would be understandable under the circumstances but for a smart student he uses his best asset – his brain. This incremental turnaround isn’t your standard crowd-pleasing rallying as the real magic is in the dread implied that it is all going to backfire on Johannes, since the climax is the school graduation.
Ulk pitches this perfectly, making the mood lighter, the changes more positive, and the outlook almost to sunny that a Carrie-esque denouement is inevitable. I’m not going to spoil anything except to say it is the ending everyone deserves, and worth the wait. But it is important to remember that whilst this is presented as a teen revenge tale, it is the social commentary on issues like mental health, understanding, empathy, and above all, responsibility we should be heeding.
Zero Point unashamedly sticks to a tried and tested formula on almost every level, but delivers such an emphatic and unexpected coup de grâce in the final act, boasting a closing line for the ages, we can forgive the use of the creative safety net. A little more fleshing out for the support characters would have helped but without them, Johannes would have had a less compulsive and socially relevant story to tell.