Lola on the Pea (2014) — Image via

Lola on the Pea

Directed by Thomas Heinemann (2014)

Every year when the Minneapolis St. Paul International Film Festival (MSPIFF) rolls around, I find myself especially looking forward to the children’s films. It’s fun to catch a small glimpse of how children’s entertainment is made for audiences outside the U.S., and I am always struck by how subtle, generous, and mature the films seems compared to your average Pixar fare. Like many of the children’s films I’ve seen at the MSPIFF over the years, Lola on the Pea (Lola auf der Erbse) is gentle rather than coddling and does not avoid or over-sentimentalize difficulty. Rather, Lola deftly combines elements of fairytale, fantasy, and fable without bypassing the fact that the world is often as harsh and disappointing as it is beautiful.

Directed and written by Thomas Heinemann, Lola on the Pea is based on a novel by Annette Mierswa. The story revolves around Lola Lachmann (Tabea Hanstein), a tween-aged German girl who is traumatized by her father (Markus Hammer)’s recent abandonment of her mother, Loretta (Christiane Paul). While most of the performances in the film are strong, Hanstein’s rich and emotionally balanced portrayal is particularly notable. At the beginning of the film, Lola, a clear social outcast as far as her peers are concerned, informs viewers that she is refusing to cut her hair, change her shoes, or wash the spot on her neck where her father last kissed her until he returns to her. Although the loss of her father clearly weighs heavily on Lola, her other childhood challenges are fairly standard: loneliness, the taunts of the other kids at school, and adjusting to her mother’s new boyfriend, Kurt (Tobias Oertel).

Lola on the Pea (2014) — Image via kinofreund.comLola’s world becomes more complicated when she meets Rebin Kitzilhan (Arturo Pereia-Bigwood), a Kurdish boy whose family has fled to Germany from Turkey illegally. Recognizing each other as fellow outsiders, Lola and Rebin become friends despite Rebin’s father (Ferhat Keskin)’s warnings that befriending Germans is dangerous given the family’s undocumented status. The friendship between Lola and Rebin anchors the film emotionally, and we see both children grow as a result of the bond. Lola, who mildly chastises Rebin at their first meeting for fishing without a permit, eventually learns that following regulations is not nearly as important as treating others with compassion, regardless of what rules might get broken in the process. Similarly, when Rebin invites Lola to his Aunt’s wedding, Lola finds the strength to cut her hair, wash her neck, and put on new shoes, showing that, while she still misses her father, she is not dwelling on his memory as intensely as she was at the beginning of the film.

From his friendship with Lola, Rebin, along with the rest of his family, learns that although they are undocumented, they are not completely lacking support in their new community. In fact, a good deal of the film features the Kitzilhans’ slow acceptance by the small Bavarian town, and the final scene features what appears to be the entire town dancing to a tune that mixes a German polka with Kurdish folk music in a clear celebration of cultural hybridity. While this scene feels a tad too tidy, it is one of the only moments in the film that does.

Lola on the Pea (2014) — Image via kinofreund.comFinal dance number notwithstanding, there are many ways Lola defies the simplistic and sugarcoated conventions of much cinema aimed at children. There is not, for instance, a clear dichotomy between the good guys and the bad. Although we are clearly meant to empathize with the Kitzilhans, who must remain largely invisible in a community that, for the most part, doesn’t want them, Rebin’s father, Tayyip, is often depicted as overly harsh toward his family, particularly when he feels that they are getting too chummy with the world outside his direct control. (The child seated behind me, not fully grasping Tayyip’s fear and frustration, kept asking his mom why he was so mean.)

In a similar vein, the two clear sources of authority in the town, the headmistress of the elementary school (Beles Adam), and the sergeant of police (Peter Fieseler), are depicted as compassionate and lovably buffoonish, respectively. Even Barkelt (Antoine Monot Jr.), the town bully and head racist — who tries to force Lola and Loretta to move their houseboat to a less ideal location and who exploits Tayyip’s undocumented status by employing him and then withholding payment — is depicted as a fairly ridiculous blowhard whom very few people actually respect. By including a cast of characters who behave admirably at times and ghastly at others, who are both gifted and flawed, Heinemann has created a world much like the one the children viewing the film actually live in, as opposed to one that is divided between easily-distinguishable heroes and villains.

Lola on the Pea (2014) — Image via kinofreund.comAnother convention of much children’s film that Lola nicely sidesteps is the implausibly happy ending, which I believe does a disservice to kids by underestimating their capacity for nuance and shortchanging their emotional resilience. Although the aforementioned dance scene concludes the film on a whimsical and upbeat note, Lola leaves plenty of unanswered questions. What will happen to Rebin and his family? How will the town adjust to their newest residents? What will Lola’s future relationship with her father look like? Will Kurt marry Loretta, and, if so, how will Lola react to her new stepdad? Although we leave the film understanding that Lola and Rebin will, with each other’s help, be fine in the short term, easy answers and pat solutions are in short supply. These loose ends are conversation-starters for kids and adults alike, and art that makes us talk to each other, rather than numbing or pacifying us, is, I think, successful art.

Lola on the Pea plays at the MSPIFF again on Saturday, Apr. 18, at 11 a.m.

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Emily Anderson

is completing her Ph.D. in English at the University of Minnesota. She teaches literature and writing at several local educational institutions.