It's comforting to know that European arthouse filmmakers can make the same mistake some American independents do, by relying on quirks, blood, and pop music to overcome lapses in story and character. In fact, for about half an hour, Felix Van Groeningen's skuzzy Belgian romance Steve + Sky coasts on that familiarity. It opens with a shaggy-dog joke, an exploding car, and a sexy dame, followed immediately by some slow-motion running, fractured flashbacks, and multiple voiceover narration. Nearly all the movie's stylistic innovations have been cribbed from a decade-old book, and even when Delfine Bafort's doe-eyed prostitute has rote sex with a customer to the sound of a chugging train, confessing, "I don't count the dicks, I count the money," her worldliness seems trite and second-hand.
As for Titus De Voogdtthe "Steve" half of the couplehe's a shaggy-haired drug dealer with a big heart and a prison-born friendship with Johan Heldenbergh, who may be Bafort's father. When they all pitch in to open a strip club, the makeshift family has dreams of transcending their class, in ways that echo the moony-eyed crooks of Quentin Tarantino's True Romance. The film's jumpy chronology also resembles Run Lola Run, and Bafort frequently engages in self-wagers that recall Amélie. Perhaps Van Groeningen intends to satirize the essential emptiness of gimmicky contemporary youth cinema. More likely, he means to join the party.
Steve + Sky has more flavor than leftovers have a right to. Van Groeningen captures the squalor of his low-rent red-light district, and he conveys the easy intimacy of two young lovers who connect more by body than mind. Two love scenes in particular are remarkable: one where De Voogdt and Bafort lay side by side, both bare-chested and staring at the ceiling, and one where they go swimming in their underwear and head to the corner of the pool to rut in full view of passing traffic. But since these two aren't the sort to have long, deep conversations about their personal philosophiesthey prefer to playfully beat on each other and throw foodVan Groeningen can't make their on-and-off affair relatable. After one of the story's many crisis points, at the moment when other movie lovers might scream at each other and lay their feelings on the line, De Voogdt instead strips naked and does laps around a traffic roundabout. Those crazy mixed-up kids.