Jacek Borcuch's All That I Love is definitely a fantastic little film: just bear in mind you've almost certainly seen a great deal of it before. The story of a teenager growing up in 1980s Poland, set against the ongoing struggle between the emerging workers' movement and the government it lifts from practically every coming of age narrative going. There's the plot thread where the protagonist discovers girls (and by extension sex) are confusing, that his parents are surprisingly complicated human beings, that the future's an unknown and frightening quantity and more besides... but it excels in so many areas, from Borcuch's direction to the terrific performances to Daniel Bloom's achingly gorgeous score that it never, ever seems like a cliché.
As a young man living in the Communist bloc in the eighties Janek (Mateusz Kosciukiewicz) idolises all things American. He plays in a punk band with his friends, writing caustic little three-chord blasts of aggression as an outlet for how he feels about the prevailing mood of social change. His parents tolerate his rebellion with good-humoured bemusement, while his girlfriend Basia (Olga Frycz) adores him for it. But Janek's father (Andrzej Chyra) is an officer in the military, while Basia's is a prominent intellectual. As the Solidarity party gathers strength and the country draws closer to martial law, it becomes increasingly difficult for the couple to ignore the outside world.
Borcuch is a model of efficiency. While the plot sticks to almost predictable beats his script is paced so beautifully it simply glides along - without having shared the same upbringing it's difficult to say it's accurate but the characterisation is pitch-perfect, dialogue coming off as wholly natural, leaving plenty unsaid. He shoots in a fairly quick, blunt rhythm, as if echoing the emotions behind Janek's band, but DP Michal Englert manages some gorgeous imagery nonetheless. There's a sense of found footage or raw, unrehearsed artistry to the camerawork, like an Eastern European take on Song Il-Gon (Magicians, Git).
Which is not to say All That I Love lacks proper dynamics - the moments it pauses for reflection are generally some of the highlights of the film. The plot thread around the half-way mark culminates in a simply astonishing scene between Chyra and Kosciukiewicz where father and son bond over shared grief, both men internalising countless things they don't know how to say out loud. It's been done - many times - but if there's anyone who can sit through it without being moved to tears either they've never felt anything similar or they're just plain made of stone.
All the leads offer some fine performances but Kosciukiewicz in particular, while a little too reticent to walk away with the film, still manages a great portrayal of adolescent angst that never once falls into any of the obvious Hollywood pitfalls. Janek is plainly a decent human being. He's also rude, aggressive, even outright stupid by turns, but the actor never lets either aspect overwhelm the character. The narrative may feel fairly well-worn more often than not but the cast come across as sufficiently human this never seems like a problem, much less contrived or manipulative.
If anything the predictable elements of the story work as expertly delivered crowd-pleasing more than falling back on formulas learned by rote. There's a definite note of adrenaline to the story, urging the audience to cheer on the underdog, and while this may play on the same tropes as any number of other more famous films it's no less effective for that. There's not much actual punk rock in the film, but authentic or not Janek's band sound convincing enough, their two key scenes a wake-up call on multiple levels - a visceral rebel yell and foreshadowing for the third act and beyond.
Composer Daniel Bloom gets most of the music, and he also deserves singling out for a beautiful piece of work, with some truly haunting use of repeated piano themes very different from the generic soaring strings one might have expected. Like the camerawork and direction it's similarly raw, genuinely emotive, and it knows when to come to the fore and when to shut up. As many of the most powerful moments are almost silent as they are scored.
Again, this kind of movie has been done, but rarely where everything comes together so well. All That I Love is commercial (up to a point) and somewhat predictable but neither safe nor bland. There's very little else to drag it down - it's quite simply one of the best such films in years, and it's largely just the faint impression of familiarity that keeps it from being an outright masterpiece. All That I Love is gripping stuff, fantastic entertainment that's thrilling, funny and profoundly moving, with everyone involved putting in a tremendous amount of effort. For anyone with the slightest interest in seeing it Jacek Borcuch's film comes hugely, hugely recommended.
(All That I Love was screened as part of the 24th Leeds International Film Festival.)