‘The Tribe’ Is a Provocative Exercise in Show vs. Tell
There are brilliant and daring conceits that elevate and enhance the viewing experience of a film, and then there are shameless and hollow gimmicks that do little more than hook the viewer in and fail to deliver anything meaningful. 'The Tribe' both promises and delivers on the former with a premise and a narrative concept unlike anything in conventional cinema: a story told from the perspective of a Ukrainian boy attending a school for the deaf where everyone speaks in sign language, and we're given no voice over or subtitles to hold our hand.
It's an exercise in showing versus telling, but the device also makes us as much of an outsider in this world of silence as these teenagers must feel in our world of sound, or as much of a lost boy as our young lead feels in his new society of demented lost boys. 'The Tribe' is the story of a deaf teen outsider who should feel at home at this school filled with other deaf teens, but the rowdy element that rules the school quickly and firmly reinforces his outsider status -- and from there the film is a grim escalation of criminal and sexual antics, like 'Fast Times at Ridgemont High,' but at a Ukrainian school for the deaf where the idea of fun is beating and robbing people, the girls prostitute themselves in the middle of the night instead of hanging at the mall, and a confrontational abortion scene makes what Cameron Crowe did back in the '80s look absolutely precious.
That's an awkward comparison. A more apt one for Miroslav Slaboshpitsky's debut feature would be to evoke the work of Austrian auteur Michael Haneke. One does not really "enjoy" watching a Haneke film -- they experience or appreciate it, the way it unnerves and provokes, getting at something dark and unpleasant in humanity. 'The Tribe' follows the same tonal and pacing patterns as a Haneke film, letting the scenes carry on for an uncomfortable amount of time to get at something beyond the surface of things, beyond the mere idiosyncrasies. And with the double language barrier, there's an additional level of discomfort and unease as our young leading man disappears further and further down the bleak, fluorescent hallways of his new home.
Scenes erupt into violence abruptly, made even more horrific by the silence that envelops the characters, making them even more unsuspecting and the sequences even more breathtaking.
But it's not because these kids are deaf that we feel for them -- and the film doesn't want us to pity them, or else it wouldn't create a gang of violent kids from the outset to challenge us. We dig deeper to reach for a teenage fragility we still recall from within, that feeling of being backed against a corner, afraid and angry and outcast and alone among a group of alones -- all reactionary, every slight and bruise a bullet loading your figurative gun. And of course, in the wrong hands, well...
'The Tribe' is a legitimately challenging and provocative film that removes the need for language barriers and proves that showing can be more necessary than telling in a day and age when exposition and gimmickry have become filmmaking crutches. It doesn't feel as though Slaboshpitsky has released a mission statement, necessarily, but he has definitely delivered something rare and singular -- the sort of experience we hope to find in cinema, not just because it's new and we haven't seen it, but because it's truly stimulating work.