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TIFF Next Wave 2018 Review: Axolotl Overkill

A flawed, but fascinating look at youthful femininity.

In her directorial debut, Helene Hegemann adapts her own novel, entitled Axolotl Roadkill, to the big screen. Her novel is said to be controversial, and after viewing this film, that comes at no surprise.

The movie stars Jasna Fritzi Bauer as Mifti, an insouciant teenage girl who has just recently lost her mother and who now appears to deal with a sort of borderline personality disorder. In no place of financial desperation thanks to her wealthy but detached father, Mifti drifts through time and space, ignoring and fighting with her family while seeking out emotional connection in the Berlin party scene. She spends most of her time with her friend Ophelia (Mavie Hörbiger), a television star who does—and shares—a copious amount of drugs, and her lover, a much older woman by the name of Alice (Arly Jover).

There is no ambiguity as to the diegesis of the film—the title is quite upfront. Axolotl—which is, by the way, an amphibian that reaches maturity without going through metamorphosis—Overkill is a hedonistic Neverland where no one ever grows and life is a sequence of chaotic amoral episodes, the result of which is a film that challenges its viewers via its ambivalent treatment of female liberation.

The film is evidently feminist, with a cast of female characters who are constantly in control of their decisions and their sexuality. And while the words and actions of all the male characters are predictable and eye-roll-inducing, the women are sporadic and full of abnormal—and often downright bizarre—outbursts. Mifti herself hums through life acting untouchable and certain, with a one-track mind to not give a fuck and the juvenile impulse to complete this task that can only come from a troubled youth. She never deals with any serious repercussions from her actions, and the film takes joy in allowing its female protagonist to rule herself in suspended animation, over and over and over again.

While this could be viewed as an idyllic scenario, an opposite reading is also available. Perhaps the nonstop party is a cell, her personal bubble—which keeps her innocence intact throughout the course of the film—a reflection of the axolotl’s small tank that we see when we are first introduced to the creatures. Is Mifti really a figure of ultimate liberation, or merely someone who is trapped within her own jaded sensibilities? These are the sorts of questions that are left unanswered by Hegemann, intentionally or not.

The main issue that overtly dominates Axolotl Overkill is that no one, especially Mifti, grows as a character. The film is one giant moment lined with smaller moments—when we leave Mifti, she is exactly the same as we found her, with no signs pointing to a future where things could be different. This makes her character difficult to sympathize with and—even worse—forgettable. She is what she is and nothing more.

Fortunately, there are other aspects to the film that make it compelling. It is beautifully shot, feeling like a crisp piece of impressionist art despite its hazy narrative. The acting throughout is superb, and the musical choices fit seamlessly. It is an achievement technically, certainly for a debut filmmaker.

The best films leave us with questions, make us think. Axolotl Overkill does just that, despite its flawed treatment of characters. There is a lot within this movie to appreciate and even admire, and if you are a lover of independent film, this is one, controversial or not, that you should definitely make time to see.

Joshua Howe

Joshua Howe is a writer and editor hailing from the small town of Kincardine, Ontario. He is a published author, poet, and sportswriter.