Cocoon tells the story of 14-year-old Nora (Lena Urzendowsky) as she emerges from her shell and starts to find a sense of self. Set in Berlin's Kottbusser Tor district in 2018 during the hottest summer on record, she isn't heard for the first 10 minutes, as she quietly hangs around in the shadow of older sister Jule (Anna Lena Klenke) and best friend Aylin (Elina Vildanova).
Writer-director Leonie Krippendorff’s second feature offers a warm and authentic look at that awkward middle ground between adolescence and adulthood, as bodies mature and minds fight through a jungle of uncertain thoughts and emotions. Life is made more difficult by a largely absent alcoholic mother who spends more time in bars than at home, leaving the sisters to fend for themselves, and Nora increasingly feels out of the loop with Jule and her older group of friends.
Seen through DP Martin Neumeyer’s hazy, summer photography, Krippendorff’s film also offers a closer look at German youth culture, embedding us into the flirting, teasing and relationship dynamics, the dialogue in the group scenes naturally flowing back and forth. Cultural differences between white and Muslim communities about marriage and pregnancy crop up, along with conversations about rape victim blaming and expectations of how young women should dress on a night out – helping to set the stage of Nora’s own journey of self-discovery.
When a new girl called Romy (Jella Haase) joins Jule’s class, Nora is soon attracted to her, the older girl helping her to clean up and get over the embarrassment of publicly menstruating in-front of her sister's friends. They’re soon spending a lot of time together, Nora feeling seen for the first time as Romy shows her another side to the city, giving her the confidence to openly explore her sexuality. It’s a path well-trodden by countless films – both gay and straight – and while there’s nothing daringly new about Krippendorff’s depiction, importantly it always feels honest.
Those special summers that you look back on in later life as being life defining are captured in Cocoon, this being the moment when Nora starts to come into her own. While using the caterpillars she keeps under her bed in jars as a metaphor for her own growth is a little on the nose (hence the film title), Krippendorff’s grounded approach makes Nora’s experience feel real (the scenes where she comes to terms with her first period and sanitary requirements being a good example). All round the performances are well-judged and it manages to achieve everything it needs – and should achieve – within a tight 90 minutes.
Cocoon is released in cinemas and on demand December 11.