Marco Berger adopts thriller elements to mixed effect in this well-played story of a blackmailed gay teen, astutely treating coercion as the problem rather than sexual activity among adolescents.
Director-writer Marco Berger has been playing with same-sex seduction since his debut, “Plan B,” frequently pitching one confident gay man against a more closeted or curious conquest. Eleven years after that first feature, his latest, “Young Hunter,” continues to riff on the same theme, here exhibiting parallels with the entrapment scenario of 2011’s “Absent” in the story of a teen duped into making a sex tape and then blackmailed into recruiting younger unsuspecting students. Far more transgressive than this premise is the casual acceptance of a 13-year-old’s sexual hunger, which is likely to discomfort viewers queasy about acknowledging the reality that maturity and sexual maturity can be mutually exclusive. Oddly world premiering in the amorphous Big Screen Competition section at Rotterdam, “Young Hunter” will be more at home in queer fests and LGBTQ distribution networks.
Berger’s enjoyment in playing with thriller elements is especially drawn out here, both through observational visuals and a score that keeps jumping the gun whenever anything potentially unsettling is on-screen. Ezéquiel (Juan Pablo Cestaro), 15, is left home alone by his parents for a few months while they tootle around Europe with his younger sister (the generally tight script frustratingly neglects to explain this highly unusual situation). His big house and nice pool make it easy to invite male classmates over to chill out, allowing him to test whether they’ll return his overtures. Frustratingly none of them does, but then he meets the eyes of older skater dude Mono (Lautaro Rodríguez), and soon he becomes Ezéquiel’s third-ever sexual partner.
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The relationship seems to be moving at a nice pace, but things feel strangely unsettled when Mono brings him to hang with his older “cousin” Chino (Juan Barberini) and they get it on while Chino nips out. After that night, Mono stops returning messages, and he disappears from the skate park. Then comes a text from Chino, revealing he filmed Ezéquiel and Mono having sex. The video’s going to go out on a pay site with blurred faces, and what’s more, he needs Ezéquiel to recruit younger boys for videos just as Mono did with him.
While initially disturbed by the turn of events, Ezéquiel seems to gain confidence as he begins to seduce Juancito (Patricio Rodríguez), a cheeky 13-year-old with ear and nose piercings that emphasize his youth. By now Ezéquiel’s parents are back, but none of the adults finds it strange these two have become fast pals despite an age gap unusual for teenage friends. It’s in oversights like this that Berger’s script falls down, unable to sustain believable plot twists when gaps in plausibility suddenly open wide. Both teen characters are well-conceived, each a credible jumble of emotions stemming from burgeoning desires and a gradual understanding of the power that comes with youthful attractions. Ezéquiel in particular is a sympathetic figure, nicely embodied by Cestaro’s canny alternation of hesitancy, assurance and finally a realization that he’s in deeply over his head. The closing scene is effective but would have been even better had Berger worked harder at developing backgrounds and relationships that, while on the side, remain crucial.
In keeping with the push for a thriller vibe, the camera often adopts a warily watchful gaze, and nighttime scenes are designed to be pregnant with tension. Berger’s tendency to overplay his hand with music has been a running criticism with several of his films, and “Young Hunter” is no exception.