A fourteen year-old German girl experiences her first crush and her sexual awakening in “Cocoon.” But to shy, observant Nora’s surprise, that crush and first love is an older teen girl.
Writer-director Leonie Krippendorff — who created the lesbian romance “Loving Her” for German TV — serves up a lived-in world and relatable, many-layered teenaged characters who delight just as easily as they disappoint. And she gives Nora a Big Fat Metaphor as a hobby. She raises caterpillars to release as butterflies, thus our metamorphosis metaphoric title — “Cocoon,” “Kokon” in German.
Nora, played with a kind of guarded guilelessness by Lena Urzendowsky, is the shrinking violet in older sister Jule’s (Lena Klenke) circle. Jule and Aylin (Elina Vildanova) are loud, exuberant BFFs, but they have little problem including mousy Nora in their travels and conversations about boys, music and weight, of all things.
Jule seems obsessed with being thin, and at one point we see the three of them attempting a “model’s trick,” eating orange juice-soaked cotton balls to lose weight.
Both older girls can be mean, or touchingly supportive. When we meet Jules and Nora’s barfly mom (Anja Schneider), we understand that. In the end, the sisters have to lean on each other, and Nora seems to be the one who recognized this first.
But frolicking in the pool with beautiful Aylin gives Nora tingles that she’s never felt before. She doesn’t have the words to describe what she’s going through, what she feels, or even how to bring it up. Jules and Aylin are super-tight. Why, she asks her sister, do they “need” or even want boys?
One touchingly tender moment has Nora talking to a sympathetic, non-judgmental teacher who gives her exactly what a good teacher should — the “you’re going to ‘feel’ a lot of things at your age, and it’s OK,” speech.
The fact that everybody speaks German isn’t the only way we realize the setting is Europe and not Florida.
Nora’s awkward naivete gets her hand-broken at a party with loud, loutish boys whom Jule and Nora are sweet on. Jule gets her to the hospital for that, but is no help in PE class that day Nora has her first menstruation while walking the balance beam.
An absentee, advice-free mom, a teacher who doesn’t see it, a sister who picks today to find her kid sister “embarrassing” all combine for a young girl’s worst nightmare.
But in the toilet, there’s salvation. It’s bob-haired blonde Romy (Jella Haase) to the rescue. It’s no wonder Nora falls instantly in love with her.
Krippendorff invites us into a latch-key kid world of parties, late night over-the-fence dips in the community pool, teen drinking and casual pot use centered around two sisters who pretty much have to fend for themselves.
The kids run through a wide range of emotions and issues — crushes, requited and unrequited, sexual experimentation, love, humiliation and heartbreak.
Nora narrates this climate-changed (insanely hot) summer story from some point in the future, letting us see and hear what she felt and endured and obviously survived.
What’s striking about this milieu is the limited drama or lack of strife in all this. Human sexuality class invites a vigorous teen debate about teen parenting vs. abortion between outspoken Muslim girls and traditional Turkish boys, who seem sheepish at parroting their parents’ bullet points.
Even the German kids have taken to blurting “I swear on the Koran” to comically emphasize a point, and Aylin is using a translator app to teach herself Turkish. She has a new boyfriend.
And nobody — even the immature and sometimes obnoxious boys — is judging anybody’s sexuality or sexual spectrum “experimenting.”
The performers are, to a one, unaffected. And once I got past Urzendowsky’s eerie resemblance to the surviving photos of Anne Frank, I was amazed at her understated immersion in this questioning kid too shy to ask for answers, unless there’s a Youtube tutorial on tampons.
Krippendorff squeezes a lot of layers of the urban teen experience into “Cocoon’s” slim 93 or so minutes, and gives a lot of shades to her characters, who are never simple “types” the way most Hollywood films about high schoolers are.
What “Cocoon” encourages Nora with isn’t the American message of “It gets better,” it’s something much more universal. Everybody goes through a version of this. And when everybody’s cool about it, it’s no big deal.
Rating: unrated, teen drug and alcohol abuse, sexual subject matter
Cast: Lena Urzendowsky, Lena Klenke, Elina Vildanova,
Anja Schneider and Jella Haase
Credits: Scripted and directed by Leonie Krippendorff. A Film Movement release.
Running time: 1:33