Barbara Albert’s “Free Radicals” is a chilling dissection of the cruelty of life and the inability of many people to overcome tragedy. The film begins with deceptive parallel tales in a small Austrian town: Manu is a grocery store checkout cashier whose sole claim to fame was surviving an airplane crash off Brazil. Her life has become somewhat comfortable and quotidian: she has a husband, daughter and a small circle of devoted friends. Elsewhere in the town is a group of surly, sarcastic teenagers who have made little contribution to their tiny world. The common bond between these stories is Lukas, Manu’s brother who teaches at the school attended by the teenagers.
One night, while coming home from a dance club, Manu’s car is in a collision with an automobile packed with the teenagers. Manu is killed on impact while one of the teenagers is left paralyzed. The fatal accident shatters everyone connected to the victims: Manu’s best friend Andrea, who stayed at the dance club while Manu took her fatal final ride, re-examines her feelings for Manu’s husband. Manu’s young daughter accepts her mother’s death stoically, whereas Manu’s sister is unable to come to terms with the loss. Manu’s brother Lukas finds his loneliness over her death eased by the unlikely friendship built with Sandra, a black cosmetic store clerk (who by virtue of her race is as much an outsider in this Austrian town as Lukas is an outsider to the world as a whole).
Among the teen set, an outsider named Patricia, who had previously been ostracized for her appearance and anti-social behavior, finds herself the object of attraction by Kai, the handsome ringleader of the callous young crowd. Kai’s girlfriend was left paralyzed by the accident, leaving Kai to somewhat shamelessly move beyond her to another conquest.
“Free Radicals” is not an easy film to accept and Albert’s somewhat clinical visual approach to the subject matter may not sit well with those who prefer movies where hearts are worn prominently on sleeves. Scenes are composed with an absence of warm colors and a wealth of harsh lighting â€“ it often seems the film was illuminated with dingy fluorescent lights. Even more jarring are snippets of pop songs which seem at odds with the film’s emotional core: the bouncy A-Ha tune “Take on Me” and a street musician’s growl of “House of the Rising Sun” feel like they’ve been inserted by accident, like insincere pops of buoyancy that intrude on the dreary proceedings.
Yet for those with patience, “Free Radicals” provides a shattering experience which dares to question the hypocrisy of those who place little value on life until it is too late. The characters here are multi-dimension in their flawed views of the world and their respective places therein. They are monsters of self-pity and self-delusion, sometimes lost in their own grief and cruelty that they fail to acknowledge the pain of others and the elusive (but not impossible) promise of a better world ahead. Clues to a happier time just beyond one’s grasp are dropped with subtle skill: a get-rich-quick lottery game with its impossible goal of instant wealth, the vague talk of “infinity” by Manu’s sister with her motherless niece, Andrea’s return to the dance club where Manu spent her last life on Earth. The challenge to absorb the pain and move ahead both baffle and weaken the characters in the film. How they rise or fall to the challenge is the brilliance of this extraordinary work of maturity and honesty. Films of this caliber rarely find their way into cinemas. The arrival of “Free Radicals” offers assurance that intelligence still thrives on the big screen.