Alternating between heartfelt and frustrating, System Crasher features magnificent performances in an all too familiar narrative.
Benni (Helena Zengel) is nine years old. She has been moved from foster home to foster home. She often experiences bursts of rage and violence, the effect of past trauma. And all she wants is to live with her mom, who is too scared to take care of her. In System Crasher, writer/director Nora Fingscheidt wants to confront the audience with the harsh realities of Benni’s situation. She is enclosed within a flawed institution that doesn’t cater to her specific needs, even as individual adults within the system try to aid in Benni’s well-being.
Over the course of the film, we meet several important people in Benni’s life. There is Micha, played with sensitive intensity by Albrecht Schuch, and Frau Bufane (Gabriela Maria Schmeide). Bufane works in youth welfare and is Benni’s case worker. She is empathetic yet desperate, quickly running out of places where Benni could live. Besides homes not taking Benni, she is also too young to live in a closed home, which might provide her with a more stable living condition, and she can’t get psychiatric help unless she lives in a stable home. This kind of infinite loop makes those who want to better Benni’s situation and give her the help she needs a lot more difficult.
Micha also finds himself enclosed in this loop. He starts out as Benni’s school escort but ends up taking her on a retreat into nature for one-on-one education and anti-violence training. However he ends up becoming too emotionally attached to Benni, yet is needed by Bufane and the people who run the foster homes because he is one of the few adults who Benni trusts. The system is supposed to help children like Benni, yet the adults tasked with aiding her are not given enough support. Of course, this means that Benni is not getting the support she desperately needs.
Even though System Crasher spends time developing its adult characters, it is mostly coming from Benni’s perspective. The aim of this is to humanize her, to make the audience understand that, even though she can be violent, this rage is coming from a past trauma, and she is not only a victim of violence herself but of a broken institution.
The camera mostly stays with her throughout, following in a hand-held style at her eye level, placing the audience on her own terms. When her rage is triggered, the film breaks from its realist style and becomes enveloped in pinks and reds. These few moments offer welcome breaks from the unspectacular style of the rest of the movie, which relies too heavily on deep-focus close-ups, a style redolent of myriad other realist films. Most notably, System Crasher is reminiscent of The Kid With a Bike, directed by the Dardenne brothers (Fingscheidt references it in an interview). The Kid With a Bike follows a similar story: a troubled child is stuck within a foster care system and lashes out angrily against adults. Similar scenarios happen in both pictures and they are both shot with a grounded, empathetic lens. Of course, it is perfectly acceptable for one to be inspired by other works of art, but System Crasher ultimately feels too similar to The Kid With a Bike and other films like it.
Additionally, the realist style Fingscheidt and cinematographer Yunus Roy Imer employ also comes off as overly familiar, especially when paired with a main character who is distinctive and rebellious. For all of Benni’s defiance against conformitivity, the film’s aesthetic unfortunately conforms to a traditional presentational technique, resulting in a dissonance between subject and form.
If you’re emotionally prepared for a heavy viewing experience, System Crasher does offer some genuinely affecting moments in its somewhat predictable “problem child” narrative. Scenes of intense emotional breakdowns are not infrequent in the film, but feel earned and relatable, mostly due to the cast of incredible actors. Helena Zengel as Benni is especially great. Even at 12 years old, she is already capable of moving through innumerable emotional states and has a keen eye for the underlying reasons Benni acts as she does. She can be charming and funny but also aggressive, seemingly on a whim. While System Crasher frustrates with its redundant aesthetic, it remains an emotionally compelling watch due to its flawed but very human characters and the incredible actors who play them.
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