In this country, we hear about these kids from teachers. The stories of how one disturbed, disruptive child requires constant attention, eats up all the teacher’s time, are legion.
Manic, impulsive, sometimes, untamable rageaholics are stressing educators and social workers the world over. In Germany, they even have a name for them — “System Crasher.”
Here’s an unblinking portrait of such a child, a willful, possibly psychotic nine-year-old girl not old enough to be parked in a mental hospital, not responsive to any kindness, any “last chance” at foster care, disrupting schools, group homes, hospitals and lives with every violent tantrum.
Benni (Helena Zengel) is a blonde, blue-eyed fury — sweet and bubbly one moment, flipped-out and lashing out the next. Some trauma in her childhood contributed to this, but her over-scheduled doctor (Melanie Straub) lets the “s” word out, just once, in suggesting “off label use” of some different drug that might calm her down. It’s worked on “schizophrenia.”
The debut feature film of Nora Fingscheidt lets Benni (short for Bernadette) into our hearts, worthy of our pity. But our real sympathies bend toward the over-matched group home counselors, teachers, social workers and one “school escort” as they try everything to corral this uncontrollable child. There’s a lenience that seems delusional, the more times we see evidence of it play out. But they’re just following protocol. Their efforts always ends with her escaping, acting-out and hurting somebody, and in the hospital under restraint.
Benni is desperate to go home to her mum (Lisa Hagmeister), who shows us just enough of her poor choices to allow a single finger of blame pointed her way. Benni escapes, convinces a stranger to drive her to Helmstedt, where her mother and two siblings live with her latest boyfriend.
Benni bullies her younger brother and sister, but in a benign way. Mom and boyfriend come home, and in seconds a violent outburst has her attacking her mother and punched and locked in a closet until the police arrive.
Every time she’s on the loose, something goes wrong — an ugly confrontation with a dog, schoolyard taunting that turns violent, tantrums that have an entire group home on lockdown while she hurls things about in the playground.
Reasoning with her is pointless. Warning her about every new placement falls on deaf ears — “It’s got to work this time, OK?” (in German with subtitles).
American audiences may bristle at the laxity of her supervision. She is plainly a danger to herself and others. But “the system” dictates what steps they can take. And with other foster kids, group home children and schoolchildren to cope with, Benni is a test “the system” cannot pass. It’s gutsy of the film to show us how there are literally no easy answers in a case like this.
But when her doctor suggests an “intensive therapy abroad,” sending her and a counselor off to Africa, feel free to roll your eyes? Is she just shipping this problem south? Why on Earth would anybody think that would work?
Her school escort, Micha (Albrecht Schuch) figures a “vacation” in the less stimulating woods, a forest cabin on a farm, would help. Letting a male counselor take a little girl into the woods sounds too creepy to ever happen in the States, but the system in Germany is desperate enough to let him try.
Zengel is a balled-up fist of energy in the title role, getting across the sweetness that can convince those who take pity on Benni that “she’s making progress,” but unleashing hell in a flash to remind them she isn’t.
An excellent supporting cast suggests empathy that crosses into pity, which “the system” doesn’t allow.
And that next explosive mood swing is all it takes to remind each and every caring adult put in her path that pity and caring and hugs won’t be enough. Drugs and institutionalization, those last resorts, start to look like a blessed relief long before “System Crasher” checks out.
MPAA Rating: TV-MA, violence, profanity
Cast: Helena Zengel, Albrecht Schuch, Gabriela Maria Schmeide, Lisa Hagmeister
Credits: Written and directed by Nora Fingscheidt. A Netflix Original.
Running time: 1:58