Taking its cues from many coming-of-age stories before it, Fatih Akin’s Goodbye Berlin tells the story of one special summer in the life of a teenage outcast. Though it ticks off most of the tropes you would expect in this kind of film, it does so with a meandering charm that perfectly captures the sun-drenched nostalgia of adolescence and the warm memories of finding a best friend, a first love and a burgeoning sense of who you actually are.
Like most teen movie heroes, 14-year-old Maik (Tristan Gobel) is kind of a loser. He has a hopeless crush on Tatjana (Aniya Wendel), the most popular girl in school who, of course, doesn’t even know he exists. She’s throwing a big birthday party at the end of term and the only people who aren’t invited are Maik and Tschick (Anand Batbileg), a Russian kid who just joined and has a penchant for turning up to school hammered on vodka.
Maik and Tschick bond over their shared unpopularity and when Maik’s mother checks in for another stint in rehab and his father heads off on a ‘business trip’ with his younger secretary, the two take off on an adventure across the German countryside in a hotwired Lada. What follows is a road trip that’s consistently funny, at times poignant and always utterly beguiling. There’s barely any plot to speak of as the two boys essentially just fall into various different situations on the road and encounter different groups of people, from a large family in a small village who invite them for lunch and a young drifter named Isa (Mercedes Muller) who joins them on the road.
Akin and cinematographer Rainer Klausmann keep these scenes visually interesting and find incredible parts of rural Germany to shoot in, but the most appealing aspect of the film is the chemistry between Gobel and Batbileg. In many ways the boys are very different with Maik harbouring some ambitions of fitting in at school and becoming one of the cool kids, whereas Tschick is far more comfortable in his weirdness. He seems to believe he’s just as cool as the other kids and if they don’t see it, that’s their fault. That’s something he helps pass onto Maik, whose experiences on the road help him realise that he has value that isn’t based on what his classmates think of him. Tschick doesn’t have as much of an arc – he’s more of a catalyst for Maik’s development – but he does have a few surprises in store that are touching nonetheless.
Though the film’s conclusion gets a little bit plotty, it isn’t enough to take the shine off of this low-key gem. Directed with vibrancy and wit by Akin and performed brilliantly by his two young leads, Goodbye Berlin is a big-hearted, insightful and endlessly endearing teen comedy.