Axolotl simile stands out |

Axolotl simile stands out

Main character Mifti is like a salamander

Jasna Fritzi Bauer appears in “Axolotl Overkill” by Helene Hegemann, an official selection of the World Cinema Dramatic Competition at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival.
Courtesy of the Sundance Institute

In her über stylish debut feature “Axolotl Overkill,” 24-year-old German filmmaker Helene Hegemann draws up a 16-year-old female protagonist who exhibits many genetic behavioral traits similar to those of the Mexican salamander known as an Axolotl.

Not that the writer/director’s implication is the exotic-species-in-question ditches school, never makes her bed, and thinks of casual sex as, well, quite that casual. Like the salamander, Mifti has a cute smile and is not hard to harbor a “crush” over. And does she ever know it… and exploit it!

Mifti (Jasna Fritzi Bauer in a killer performance), while possessing a beauty that is quite singular, is reckless and messy as-all-get-out. Having recently lost her mother and with a mostly estranged eccentric and wealthy father, she keeps her peers at arm’s length while roaming the club scene. Never seeming to troll for sex and drugs, she lets them come to her.

The breakout novel “Axolotl Roadkill” is where Hegemann, a then 17-year-old novice writer, and Mifti, her shiny yet unpolished subject, first achieved low-chakra prominence.

Diagnosed as a “‘pseudo stress-debilitated problem child,” Mifti notes in her diary that “horrible lives are a godsend.” One supposition is that freedom comes part and parcel.

Mifti, however, despite her years, is quick as a whip when it comes to analyzing adult behavior and the often lack thereof.

The confusion and chaos that often accompany females through adolescence, although certainly present to some degree, are not as pronounced as with others her age.

It’s evident in the startling, quite-frank questions she poses, seemingly out of the blue, to her soon-to-be-stammering elders. Mostly accusatory in tone, they imply, to put it mildly, a general lack of parenting skills. It’s also quite evident that, her deduction abilities notwithstanding, she’s a boatload of positive reinforcement shy of well adjustment.

An interesting sidebar to the salamander Hegemann chose to spirit into the metaphoric realm of her film is that Axolotls, as it turns out, can currently only be located in the wild among the enchanting lakes and canals and floating gardens of Xochimilco, on the outskirts of Mexico City. They could have found worse digs, that’s for sure.

Known for their ability to regenerate severed appendages, they resemble a lizard with feathered looking gills growing out of their heads. Their popularity as pets has put them on an endangered species list.

Trait-wise, in more than a few instances, Mifti resembles Axolotl. When the amphibians are impelled to relocate from home waters, they naturally receive a rush of hormones that lead to an increase in maturation. It’s been referred to as “getting kicked out of your parent’s basement.”

Not that Hegemann’s structural choices in her storyline strictly follow the metaphor, but both similarities and differences between Mifti and the “walking fish” are what I found most intriguing about the film.

Plus the fact, of course, that, when Bauer’s face was not in the shot, I missed her. No matter the echoes of implied carnage in her wake, she lent warmth to the scenes. The last time I had a similar reaction was with Brooke Smith in “Series 7” from 2001.

If I may be allowed a smidgen of hyperbole “overkill,” in Hegemann’s cinematic landscape, warts and all, youthful excess and exuberance have never looked and felt so good. It’s to be expected, I suppose. In her short life she has directed award-winning productions of, not only film, but also theater and opera.

A caveat, however, is, in many ways, the film forces you to go to it. Coming to you is not at the top of its “to do list.” There’s a bit of the ol’ abstract at play here. Now, if those mental hoops aren’t too difficult to jump through, you’ll find “Axolotl Overkill” a most interesting and entertaining film.

“Axolotl Overkill” is in Sundance’s World Cinema Dramatic Competition and will screen at the following times:

  • Wednesday, Jan. 25, noon at the Temple Theatre
  • Friday, Jan. 27, 11:45 p.m. at the Egyptian Theatre

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