“Peppermint” is the Greek entry in the upcoming competition for the Academy Award for Best Foreign-Language Film. It will probably not get a nomination — “Peppermint” lacks both a U.S. distributor and manufactured industry buzz, nor have Oscar voters shown much interest in films from Greece — and that’s truly a shame since “Peppermint” is a sweetly effervescent little production with enough charm and goodwill to fuel a dozen films.
The focus of “Peppermint” is Stephanos, a divorced workaholic æronautical engineer who is unexpectedly invited to a reunion party of his teenage friends. On the way to the party, Stephanos flashes back on his life, with a heavy focus on his mischief-thick childhood. As a youth, Stephanos was an intellectual delinquent: he was brainy enough to construct his own model airplanes and reckless enough to cut up his father’s underwear for the elastic to power the toy vehicle in a flight directly into his unsuspecting dad’s head. Sharing much of Stephanos’ childhood was his first cousin Marina, who frequently served as a happy conspirator in activities ranging from sneaking about their sleeping aunt’s bedroom to sampling the delights of the family liquor cabinet.
Stephanos has a talent for bringing out the edgy side in his childhood peers. He encourages trading of holy picture cards of the saints on the steps of a church, creates a ruckus when asked to perform an algebra equation in a class, and liberates a bookwormish fat boy from his studies by encouraging him to toss his hefty textbooks from a train. Yet despite his naughty behavior, Stephanos never veers into criminal or malicious situations, and his family (despite his father’s impotent threats of an exile in “a strict boarding school”) tolerates his behavior with patience and a warm slice of love. A true gem of a scene comes when his mother discovers Stephanos hiding a girlie magazine. She berates Stephanos with the promise to show the magazine to his father, but withdraws her fury when Stephanos explains he stole the magazine from his father. She then resolves to destroy it in the wood-burning stove, but before incinerating it she pauses over a picture or two and ruefully wonders aloud over the sexpot photographs: “What’s the big deal?”
“Peppermint” is rich with small sparkles of true life, ranging from the mildly absurd (an aunt who is obsessed with gossip on the Greek royal family, a lamentable hotel lounge band in ill-fitting suits and indifferent expressions) to the heartbreaking (a late call to Stephanos from Marina who, after years of estrangement, needs to identify herself as “Your cousin Marina”). In a quietly jolting sequence, the teenage Stephanos and his peers are happily dancing the night away at a party. It is the mid-1960s and the partygoers are swinging to Tommy James’ records in an apartment which is decorated in typical ’60s kitsch. The boys and girls are young, slender, very attractive and gyrating in carefree abandon. Suddenly, the adult Stephanos comes through the door. The slender, insouciant young Stephanos is instantly older and bulkier, perhaps a little bitter around the edges. The decor is dullish conservative and contemporary, the partygoers are suddenly older and none seem to have aged very well. And although Tommy James’ music is still playing, the dancing is slower, more careful, more awkward. In this brief switch of eras, director Costas Kapakas offers a remarkable view of time and how people deal with it.
“Peppermint” has a couple of minor hiccups — the fact that the four actors who play Stephanos over the course of his life really don’t resemble each, an extended sequence at his school tries too hard to capture Felliniesque surrealism — but on the whole the film is a moving, memorable celebration of family and the spirit of youth.