To See the Sea (2014) — Image via

To See the Sea

Directed by Jiří Mádl (2014)

Jiří Mádl’s debut film To See the Sea (Pojedeme k moři) is yet another example of why, every year, I look forward to the children’s films at the Minneapolis St. Paul International Film Festival (MSPIFF). To See the Sea is a sweet and occasionally unsettling film about friendship, determination, growing up, and, as is often the case with first films, filmmaking. The narrative both follows and is seemingly constructed by Tomás (Petr Šimčák), an eleven-year-old boy living in Prague, and his best friend Haris (Jan Maršál). When I read that To See is meant to look as if it was entirely shot, directed, and produced by two young boys, when in reality it’s not, I thought the film would either be an innovative and refreshing change of pace from most coming-of-age films or that it would be gimmicky and grow tedious very quickly. Luckily, the former proved to be the case.

To See the Sea (2014) — Image via continental-film.skAs we are told in the first scene, Tomás has received a camera as an 11th birthday gift and has set out to make a movie about his family, his friendships, and his life. While Tomás captures his reality with warmth and humor, what I particularly enjoyed was the playfulness he uses when assembling his footage into a coherent story. As we quickly come to understand, Tomás is learning by doing and is not afraid to play with sound, color, lighting, timing, looping, cutting, and so on. Watching the film, one gets the sense that both Tomás and the actual director and cinematographer (Edita Kainrathová) had good deal of fun while making their art. The exuberance Tomás exhibits while learning his craft through trial and error, not to mention his willingness to make mistakes, serve as reminders to the viewer that life, like filmmaking, is often at its richest when risks are taken and openness to spontaneity is prioritized. The film further develops the parallel between filmmaking and living well by suggesting that the focus and honesty Tomás displays while making his movie is not that different from the type of focus and honesty it takes to live with integrity. As Tomás tells us at the end of To See, “I’ve made a film. Now I can do anything.”

And speaking of the film itself, To See is a journey that is at turns funny, painful, mysterious, and touching. Many of Tomás’s exploits are typical of late childhood: He and Haris talk about the girls they like, play practical jokes on the bullies from their soccer team, and generally try to catch each other doing embarrassing things on camera. Despite the goofiness, the film almost inadvertently catalogues the love both boys have for the people who shape their lives, each other included. (The fake wedding scene between Tomás and Haris alone makes the film more than worth it.) As they introduce us to themselves and their worlds, Tomás expresses special tenderness for his grandmother (Jaroslava Pokorná), and Haris sticks up for his mother (Michaela Majerníková), who is attempting to flee an abusive marriage. The boys, who are likable to begin with, become more so through their deep engagement with others.

To See the Sea (2014) — Image via continental-film.skWhile there is plenty of focus on the innocent pleasures and untainted joys of childhood, To See the Sea does not shy away from the boys’ budding sexual curiosity or the harsh ways that death and violence force themselves into both Tomás and Haris’s lives. As I’ve mentioned before in other reviews, a vast majority of the MSPIFF children’s films portray childhood and adolescence without avoiding the discomfort and confusion that is an integral part of growing up. Throughout their struggles and triumphs, Tomás and Haris do not always behave angelically, and they aren’t above telling a lie here and there, or at least avoiding a painful truth. Rather, they are depicted as little humans with desires, insecurities, foibles, and their own kinds of selfishness and nobility. It is a testament to the film’s emotional complexity that it can be utterly frank about both boys’ flaws without compromising the viewer’s sympathy.

Speaking further to the film’s complexity, To See the Sea also provides a fun mix of genres, and there are elements of it that would, I think, appeal to people who don’t usually consider themselves part of the target audience for children’s films. People who enjoy experimental film or cinéma vérité will find something here, as will those who enjoy comedy, family drama, and coming-of-age films. To See also contains plenty of mystery, as Tomás uses his camera to track the comings and goings of his father (Ondřej Vetchý), whom he suspects might be having an affair. The truth eludes Tomás for a while, but, as is the case with his filmmaking, he perseveres and finally attains the answers he seeks.

To See the Sea (2014) — Image via continental-film.skTo See the Sea feels both utterly unique and very much of its time, perhaps because of all the shots that mimic selfies. My one quibble is with the fast-paced, episodic nature of the storytelling. While most of the time this format worked, there were a few scenes that tackled heavy subject matter and that could have stood to be a little longer. When Tomás loses someone important to him, for instance, I would have liked to linger more on his reaction. Then again, seeing as the film is supposed to pass as one made by an 11-year-old boy, perhaps it is realistic that he would not want to dwell on moments that cause him pain.

While I’m not sure this would be a film for young children, it is a worthwhile addition to the adolescent film canon and would probably be especially appreciated by teens who are themselves interested in filmmaking. The collaboration and camaraderie between Tomás and Haris is a pleasure to watch unfold, and we are rewarded when both boys come to understand their own lives better through the film they are making. Both Šimčák and Maršál’s performances manage to be serious, ebullient, withdrawn, or reflective, as the scene requires. The fact that Tomás and Haris are ostensibly documenting their lives for themselves and each other brings an added element of intimacy to the film, and it truly feels that we have been invited along on an adventure not meant entirely for us, but satisfying nonetheless.

To See has also pleased audiences at the Zlín International Film Festival, where it won the Best Feature Film for Children prize. It was also nominated for Czech Lion awards (roughly the Czech equivalent of the Oscars) for best screenplay, best director, and best film. You can catch another screening at the MSPIFF Saturday, Apr. 25 at 3 p.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.