The phrase “sullen teen” doesn’t know borders and has symptoms one can recognize anywhere on Earth.
The frown is there just to break up the monotony of the omnipresent scowl. “Please” and “thank you” are the hardest words in any language to master. Smoking? Sure. But only if it infuriates adults. And even those who can’t spell “narcissism” know it because they live it, not that they’d admit it or acknowledge it as a problem.
We meet Ola as she’s settling in for her third driving test. She’s doing OK, but her phone is ringing off the hook, and its “F–king Police” ring tone is distracting her and annoying her driving instructor. One evasive maneuver later, she’s flunked, cussed and gotten into her first road rage incident, and she’s just 17 and still without a license.
“How’d you make out?” a pal asks, in Polish with English subtitles.
“Like a whore in the rain.”
Screen newcomer Zofia Stafiej makes an impressive debut as Ola in “I Never Cry,” a dramedy about a teen’s journey from self-obsession to self-awareness. For Ola, that’s a literal “journey,” one that puts the 17 year-old on a plane to Ireland.
Ola’s father left Poland “half my life” ago, she gripes to her mother (Kinga Preis). She grew up without him, even as his checks were financing her, her mother and the older brother that they both take care of because he has multiple sclerosis. Ola cuts school, chain-smokes, has just a couple of friends and is starting to get the attention of horny teenage boys. The attention she wanted was from her dad. So she’s damned well going to hold him to his promise to buy her a car “AFTER you get your license.”
She doesn’t give up that goal when he dies, killed in an accident on the docks in Dublin, where he works. Because she’s learned English, she is the one Mom sends to retrieve the body and “sort” all the financial, legal and diplomatic paperwork.
“Who is the 17 year-old here?” becomes Ola’s new bitchy phrase of choice as Mom nags her, by phone, all through her quest. The nagging is necessary because Ola isn’t in mourning and is easily distracted — a night out drinking with Irish teens, cadging cigarettes, on the hunt for the old man’s money and only his money.
Ola confronts the job agency agent (Arkadiusz Jakubik, quite good) who placed her father in a job, also Dad’s former employer, a not-that-professional funeral home — Glimpses of them manhandling a corpse raise an eyebrow. — and her father’s other life in Ireland, where and how he lived, and with whom.
And with every “give me the cheapest” and “I’m not letting it go” to those who want to shrug her off, one goal is in mind. That. Damned. Car. He. Promised.
“All the money he saved for me will be wasted on his funeral,” she fumes to one and all.
But that first meeting with the placement agent tips us and maybe Ola off that she’s judged the old man without knowing him. She never bothered to learn his middle name. A visit to the morgue has a dark, sad comedy about it. She doesn’t recognize the mangled body.
“Was he even your father?” the attendant wonders, in that judgmental Irish accent. “You seem to know nothing about him.”
Actor turned writer-director Piotr Domalewski (the Polish comedy “Silent Night” was his) gives his film a funereal tone and look — wintry, downbeat, droll. And he and a very dialed-in Stafiej take care not to let Ola come off too hateful.
She’s a little snot, to be sure. But she’s enterprising, to say the least. And she’s so on-task we kind of root for her to realize her dream, just so long as she’s not driving anywhere near us. It’s not until she and we recognize the selfishness of that goal that she starts to grow up and, as her mother is always pleading, manages to “Be nice for once.”
That internal journey and not the culture-shock of arriving in Ireland makes “I Never Cry” pay off, an intimate, darkly-funny story about that moment when a smart teenager finally figures out its not all about her.
MPA Rating: unrated, smoking, drinking and profanity, all involving teens
Cast: Zofia Stafiej, Kinga Preis, Arkadiusz Jakubik and Cosmina Stratan
Credits: Scripted and directed by Piotr Domalewski. A Forum Film Poland release, screening through BAM’s Kino Polska, and other services.
Running time: 1:35