A foreign accent, an eccentric cast, some gorgeous scenery and a lighthearted joie de vivre attitude about dark subjects: These are a few of the elements necessary for constructing an art-house crowd-pleaser. Vincent Wants to Sea (Vincent Will Meer) is just such a film. Having nabbed Outstanding Feature and Best Actor at the 2011 German Film Awards (while nailing down nominations for Best Supporting Actor, Best Supporting Actress and Best Screenplay), Vincent is now pulling into America looking for easily charmed audiences.
The film warms up its engine by introducing us to our title character, Vincent (German TV actor Florian David Fitz, who also penned the screenplay). Vincent is a troubled twentysomething. His beloved mother just passed away, he’s battling a bad case of Tourette’s syndrome and his estranged father wants to dump him in an institution. Dad (Heino Ferch from Downfall and Run Lola Run) is an asshole politician who divorced Vincent’s mom ages ago and views his profanity-spouting son as nothing more than an embarrassment. Following mom’s funeral—interrupted, of course, by Vincent’s uncontrollable outbursts—dad trucks Vincent to an out-of-the-way hospital and leaves him in the care of the serious-but-compassionate Dr. Rose (Katharina Müller-Elmau, another German TV vet).
Bitter at being hidden away in a private clinic, but wary of his ability to interact with everyday folks, Vincent begrudgingly gets to know his fellow patients. Chief among them is his anal, OCD-afflicted roommate Alexander (Johannes Allmayer, who also worked in the salt mines of German TV) and rebellious, redheaded anorexic Marie (freckled pixie Karoline Herfurth from We Are the Night, The Reader and Perfume: The Story of a Murderer). Vincent tries his best to fit in to his new surroundings, but he’s nagged by his inability to carry out his mother’s final wish—to have her ashes scattered in the Mediterranean at some place called San Vicente.
When Marie steals the keys to Dr. Rose’s car, proposing a little unsanctioned excursion, Vincent seizes on the opportunity to put his mother’s soul to rest. The only hitch in the plan comes when fastidious Alexander discovers the two about to go on the lam. He’s initially kidnapped, but he soon becomes a willing participant in the cross-European journey. Naturally, Dr. Rose goes out in pursuit of the trio, accompanied by Vincent’s not-so-happy father, who’s mostly interested in covering up any hint of scandal. Look at it sideways, and you’ve got a near-perfect Germanic re-creation of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off: the rule-breaking hero, the hot girl, the persnickety sidekick, the fancy car, the nasty parental figure in hot pursuit. Hard to say if that was intentional on the part of the filmmakers, but it’s worth noting.
The “road picture” is a tried-and-true genre, and—to be frank—one of the simplest to construct. All you need is a car, a couple of characters and a string of pit stops. Vincent isn’t entirely immune to the tropes: the gas station robberies, the breakdowns, the predetermined romance, the lite-rock pop songs on the radio. Fortunately, Vincent Wants to Sea gets significant gas mileage out of its compelling characters and lovely settings. Our protagonists end up traversing the Alps on their way to Italy and are rewarded with plenty of incredible background scenery for the detour.
While Vincent Wants to Sea doesn’t entirely avoid the darker aspects of its main characters’ various problems, it does stop short of the twee concept that an American film would surely have fallen victim to—namely, the idea that “crazy” people are actually the universe’s greatest source of wisdom and sagacity. Vincent doesn’t try to peddle that soap. It’s a mostly sanitized portrait of mental illness, but it’s not patronizing, and it heads in an honest enough direction. While Vincent and Alexander are afflicted with relatively harmless personality tics, Marie’s anorexia is more troubling. It’s serious enough that it’s starting to become a real drain on her physical form. It is for this reason that Dr. Rose knows she must locate her escaped patients. And soon.
The story offered up in Vincent Wants to Sea (a bad metaphorical translation on the original German pun) is transparently formulaic. We know basically every twist in the road before it arrives. But that familiarity ends up adding a lot to the film’s likability. It is, as was mentioned at the start, an art-house crowd-pleaser. What should be worn-out and unrealistic comes across as enjoyable and optimistic thanks to some well-balanced humor, some heartfelt performances and a technical sheen that keeps Europe’s roadways looking picturesque as a postcard.