System Crasher is the outstanding feature film debut of German director Nora Fingscheidt. A tremendous slice of life filled with light and energy, which doesn’t shy away from the tough realities of what social care is like for children with severe developmental issues.
Benni (Helena Zengel) is a foul-mouthed, rebellious nine-year-old who struggles to contain her violent impulses. Having been bounced around various foster families and group homes from her earliest years, this lack of structure and stability only worsens her lack of emotional control. Benni’s behaviour represents a serious challenge for anyone who tries to look after her, and the film begins at a major turning point where her chances of a normal life outside of institutional care seem to be dwindling.
A kindly social worker, played by Albrecht Schuch, takes an interest in Benni and strives to find a solution which might help overcome her troubled upbringing. In spite of her maddening behaviour, many of the adults in her life are desperate for her lot to improve and the film is fixed around a thorny, central problem: to what extent can we expect a small child to take responsibility for their actions when they’ve been badly let down by their caregivers?
System Crasher might sound like a tough watch, but the film is anything but bleak. Steeped in a certain realist tradition, somewhat reminiscent of the Dardennes brothers – The Kid with a Bike, especially – and Xavier Dolan’s Mommy, Fingscheidt’s film pulses with life, capturing perfectly the headstrong, reckless nature of Benni herself. The cinematography offers up-close, child’s eye shots which increase the intimacy and the overall energy of how it’s composed mirrors the high-tempo of the young lead.
There’s no sugarcoating or moralising to be found here. Benni is shown as both a nightmare and a joy, a vulnerable person who’s been badly let down and an impish figure with a talent for making things worse. The subject matter lends itself to tragedy, but the film takes a different approach, portraying Benni as an impossible puzzle rather than a charity case. System Crasher makes you feel the reality of life in care and somehow brings an upbeat slant to bear on a tragic predicament.