As the anticipated stateside release of Cristi Puiu's extraordinary Aurora draws closer, the Romanian New Wave rolls on with Outbound, the debut feature from Bogdan George Apetri, whose credits as a producer on Eric Mendelsohn's lovely 3 Backyards and Florin Serban's Emigrant lend him ample art-house cred from the outset. Compounding this with the fact that the film's story was dreamt up by 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days helmer Cristian Mungiu and his Tales from the Golden Age collaborator Ioana Uricara, Outbound arrives with promise that this Dardenne-lite story of a young mother getting her affairs in order before beating a path out of town while on a day pass from jail ultimately can't completely live up to.
This isn't to say that Outbound is unworthy or doesn't intermittently hold its own unique and unexpected delights. In fact, things start out quite promising: Matilda (Ana Ularu) walks out of prison with a day pass and right up to a truck driver who begins to negotiate a time table and fees to help the young woman flee from the remaining three years of her prison sentence, for a crime that is never fully spelled out. The same can be said of most things in Apetri's film, which basically plays out as a series of negotiations that Matilda must settle before she is set to meet up with the driver.
Her family-man brother (Andi Vasluianu) is her first sparring partner, hesitantly allowing Matilda to hitch a ride to their mother's funeral, a decision he regrets when she eventually asks him for money and to become the father of the son she hasn't seen in two years. Turning her back on any chance of redemption with her family, Matilda goes on to visit her erstwhile lover, partner and the father of her child, Paul, played by a galvanic Mimi Branerascu, the philandering husband of the upcoming Tuesday, After Christmas. The segment focused on Paul and Matilda—the film is broken up into meeting times, complete with title cards—constitutes the film's minor stride, with Branerascu and Ulara summoning a violent, smoldering past with a seeming ease. A pimp with charm and venom to spare, Paul goes 12 rounds with Matilda over money he owes her, not to mention the location of Toma (Timotei Duma), their eight-year-old son who Matilda plans to escape with.
Toma, as we learn, has been learning his own life lessons and negotiating tasks while mommy was away, leading to a devastating, if predictable finale. Predictability is ultimately only a minor problem in Outbound's narrative, but it's a hefty hindrance to the style, which is textbook Dardenne with what seems like only a modicum of personal style laid over it. The look of the film is borderline tedious as it goes on but the performers and the script, co-authored by the director and Tudo Voican (who also co-scripted California Dreamin'), keeps things fleet-footed and consistently engaging. Not completely surprising, Apetri's most captivating and moving scenes come about when the characters are not in service to the plot. There is one particularly beautiful moment when Matilda and Toma share a cigarette and playfully blow smoke at one another while in the hallway of a passenger car. Would that more of these moments populated this not entirely unpromising debut, but for the moment, Apetri is more focused on making sure the trains run on time.