Swiss director-writer Julien Wagner’s September Babies is a moody, atmospheric thriller about life in a dystopian version of Europe under an authoritarian shadow organization. Zea (Nina Wyss) is 12 when the film opens, and she joins her mentors, who are part of the SECTION group, on an assassination raid. Zea is a product of SECTION, having been raised and trained by them and provided with advantages like being immunized to neurotoxins. After the initial raid from the group, the story jumps ten years into the future to a time when two of the SECTION unit members, Bonnie (Kaija Ledergerber) and Bono (Benjamin Merz), are hiding out, but still working for SECTION Boss Prince (Jeroen Engelsman). Zea thinks they are dead but finds out from torturing a SECTION operative that they aren’t. She then tracks down and reconnects with her previous handler, Nym (Ilja Baumeier), and convinces him to tell her where they are.
Zea feels deep rage and resentment at the way she was raised to be an agent, but at the same time, she misses the familial attachments of her SECTION partners from when she was growing up. All of the blame for her (and her partners’) misery lands squarely at the feet of Prince, and there is much discussion of how to find him and deal with him. Will Zea reunite with SECTION, and who will survive that? And will she find Prince?
“…Zea is a product of SECTION, having been raised and trained by them…“
September Babies is an intimate, almost claustrophobic viewing experience. Most of the scenes are shot as low-light close-ups of conversations between the characters; it’s strongly dialogue-driven, and it’s in German. It’s worth noting that the humor in the film is also culturally presented in a dry, dark German style. Wagner occasionally goes for moments of light-hearted silliness to break the deep gloom of the film (starting with whimsical animations spelling out the character’s names in the beginning). This will help non-Swiss viewers relax into the film, but parts of the tense, soap opera-style dialogue are impenetrable. There seems to be a common locution style for certain cultures, where questions are deflected instead of answered. The filmmaker seems to want to engender an appreciation of Tarantinoesque clever banter, but for those reading subtitles, it can be confusing, making the threads of ideas hard to follow. Much can be lost in translation without a deep understanding of the nuanced cultural differences.
The character studies are a bit weak: the viewer will fight for every scrap of exposition about who they are and what they want. The big bad, Prince, isn’t well-defined enough to be truly menacing. That said, Nina Wyss delivers stand-out performances as Zea, and Sedona Wagner plays the younger version of Zea. Visually and thematically, September Babies is dark and rich in dialogue, requiring an English-speaking viewer to pay close attention to the subtitles. There’s less action than audiences have grown accustomed to in this genre. It has a vibe reminiscent of the Kingsmen films but only includes a couple of high-octane set pieces. There are many firearms on screen, and not much shooting. Typically, action films tend to have less dialogue to make it easier to localize the language for foreign markets, but this is an idea Wagner has rejected. He’s gone all-in on stylish repartee for his charming characters. It is not going to work for everyone, but definitely worth giving it a try to see if you can immerse yourself in the dystopian world of SECTION.
"…a moody, atmospheric thriller about life under an authoritarian shadow organization..."