There’s a moment about 10 minutes into Martin Šulik’s drama Gypsy where teenage protagonist Janko Mižigár, having just seen his father die and his mother get remarried to a local hoodlum, walks down to the riverbank and picks up a handful of dust, tossing it into the air to watch it drift away like a puff of smoke. Šulik doesn’t linger on the image; the whole scene takes less than 30 seconds. But it’s indicative of Gypsy’s style, which isn’t some dreary wallow in the poverty and squalor of a Roma village. The movie is vibrant and modern, and doesn’t treat Mižigár as a mute, unknowable alien. The world of Gypsy is a mix of the familiar and the exotic: a place where people slaughter animals right outside their tin-roof shacks, next to their satellite dishes, and where mob bosses hand out stolen soccer jerseys to the village youth, then head up the hill to congregate in the one spot where they can get a decent cell-phone signal. And in that world, Šulik focuses on Mižigár: a good-hearted kid seeking a few moments of serenity and beauty, away from the demands of a stepfather who wants to turn him into another minion.
Gypsy’s story isn’t as distinctive as its setting or characters. Šulik borrows liberally from Hamlet, including having Mižigár’s late father appear to him as a ghost, and the “Will this poor kid turn to a life of crime?” plot is practically the pro forma way cinema explores the lives of the underclass. But Šulik explores with such energy and compassion, from the way he moves the camera—always giving a sense of where Mižigár is within the sometimes-labyrinthine surroundings of his village—to the way he defines the difficult choice Mižigár faces between being a morally upstanding charity case or a proudly independent thief.
And while Gypsy is a little ham-fisted at depicting the racism the Romani face (including from a well-intentioned documentary film crew, who show up looking to expose the “truth” about these people as they understand it), the movie thrives whenever it returns to its particulars: the fumbling way Mižigár and his girlfriend talk about sex while they sneak off to a meadow, the priest who gives boxing lessons to the kids so long as they can prove they’re not glue-addicts, the ostriches one villager brings in as a possible new food supply, and so on. This isn’t a film about abstract social ills, it’s about specific people in a specific place, and how they get disturbingly comfortable with theft and violence as a way of life.