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Belgian director’s ‘Hop’ stumbles despite strong start

Brian Doxtader | Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Dominique Standaert’s “Hop” starts strong, but gradually loses its way until its charm and humor become obscured by its implausibility. The black and white Belgian film, shot digitally, was a success on the film festival circuit, despite the many problems that arise in the second and third acts.

“Hop” follows Justin (Kalomba Mbuyi) and his father Dieudonne (Ansou Diedhiou), two illegal aliens living in Brussels. Justin taps into a neighbor’s cable TV to watch a soccer match. When he is found out, his father is detained, though Justin escapes and finds refuge with two radical leftists, Frans (Jan Decleir) and Gerda (Antje De Boeck). With their help, he seeks to free his father, who has been deported to the Congo.

This premise holds a lot of promise, but Standaert doesn’t explore the themes he presents as fully as he might have. The later acts, in which Justin begins his own reign of terror, stretch suspension of disbelief to the breaking point, especially since he seems to have a MacGuyver-esque resourcefulness (he builds a bomb and trigger out of dynamite, a K’Nex set and two cell phones). Justin’s turn to terrorist methods to free his father is a little discomforting since he is clearly the protagonist.

The strangeness of film pulls “Hop” closer to “Home Alone” than “The 400 Blows,” which is really a shame, since it had a lot of unexplored potential.

Still, there are several excellent moments throughout. The interaction between characters is often quite good, as Frans and Gerda form a sort of stand-in family for Justin as he searches for his father. Both characters sidestep clichés, which is welcome since many of the other characters fall into such trappings. Some of them, most notably the authorities and the neighbor, are more caricatures than true characters, which delineates the dichotomy between the “good guys” and the “bad guys” too cleanly.

Matters of race, conscience and ideology seem to play a prominent role in “Hop,” but the film’s conclusion wraps everything up too neatly for those themes to carry any true resonance. While the film seems to be moving toward one resolution, the director suddenly jerks it in a different, largely unwelcome direction, as it he’s afraid of following through on the film he’s started to make. It almost seems as if Standaert wasn’t true to his instincts, and tried to make something that would please his audience, rather than follow through to the film’s logical conclusion.

Additionally, “Hop” is never sure if it wants to be a drama or a comedy, and the two genres mix with uneven results. There are aspects of “Hop” which are quite funny, but the film seems to take itself too seriously to be considered mere comedy. At the same time, it is not self-aware or introspective enough to be a proper drama, which it often seems to lean toward.

The acting is quite good throughout. Kalomba Mbuyi is clearly a talented young actor, and he carries much of the film. As Justin, he manages to portray a wide scope of emotions, and his charisma and screen personality is engagingly watchable. Antje De Boeck may give the best performance in the film as Gerda, whose concern for Justin and love for Frans is strikingly emotional.

“Hop” falls short of its potential, but it’s by no means a bad film. While viewers might wish that it explored its themes a little deeper, writer-director Dominique Standaert demonstrates his filmmaking potential and establishes himself as a significant talent. “Hop” will be screened on Thursday at 7 p.m. and 10 p.m. as part of the Nanovic Film Series.