Review by James Lindorf
Where Hands Touch is a romantic period piece from filmmaker Amma Asante (A United Kingdom) centered on the relationship of two German teens in 1944 near the end of Hitler’s reign. Amandla Stenberg (The Hunger Games) is Leyna, the 15-year old biracial daughter of a white German mother and an African father who, despite their standings in society, finds love in Lutz, a member of the Hitler youth and son of a prominent Nazi soldier played by George MacKay (Captain Fantastic). The film aired at the Toronto International Film Festival and is currently in limited release.
Like most romance films, the way you end up feeling about the movie is directly related to how you feel about the couple at its center. When you watch a typical Rom-Com, you know the story beats, and you know someone will do something to break them up before reuniting near the climax. If you’re watching one of the many inspired by Romeo and Juliet you know rival families, jobs or what have you conspire to keep the couple apart. Where Hands Touch falls closer to the second style, but instead of just a pair of bickering parents, it is the rest of the country telling Leyna and Lutz not to be together, and if they are, they will kill them both.
The strength of the film lies in the performances of Stenberg and Abbie Cornish (Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri) who plays her devoted and terrified mother. Given their situation, the two get to share much more than the standard “How was school?” conversations. They have heartwarming moments, times when one is mad at the other, but the major element is shared moments of fear. Threatened with being forced into a labor camp, raped, murdered, or mutilated is seemingly a daily occurrence for the two. Leyna’s only bright spot is the time she gets to spend with Lutz. Leyna is her mother’s bright spot, but she sees Leyna’s relationship as a history of bad mistakes repeating itself.
MacKay has his moments, particularly near the end of the film, but for the most part, he is a little uninspiring with his performance. It is Leyna’s story more than Lutz’s, so we never get to understand his motivation beyond a physical attraction. One thing that MacKay’s performance did have in common with Stenberg and Cornish is that all three were incapable of nailing the German accent for the length of the film. Sometimes it’s good, other times it is Sound of Music community theater, and at times it’s just gone. Another element that could leave you wanting details is the large, CGI, establishing shots whenever our characters enter a new part of Germany. It does its job, but the CGI looks like it came from a video game in 2002 or earlier. It was definitely money that could have been used elsewhere.
There is a sharp divide about halfway through the film that, while heart-wrenching, should have been the setting for the entire movie or drastically reduced. It is a detour from the love story into the horrors of German labor and concentration camps, before returning to the original focus. It ramped up the demand for a strong performance from Stenberg, which she was able to deliver. If she had faltered in that act, many viewers would have tuned out the rest of the film.
While mildly predictable and a little scattered in its focus, Where Hands Touch overcomes its limitations with the strength of its lead actress and its commitment to love and identity.
In theaters now.
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