Grade: B
Entire family: No
2008, 88 min., Color
Not rated (would be R for brief nudity and language, alcohol use, and smoking)
Aspect ratio: 1.78:1
Featured audio: Indonesian Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo with English subtitles
Bonus features: C-
Amazon link

You haven’t seen another film in the world like Jermal, a 2008 Indonesian production with English subtitles about a group of young teenage boys who live and work on an isolated fishing platform in the middle of the Malacca Straits off North Sumatra. It’s an absolutely unique, vicarious experience that almost dwarfs the coming-of-age / father-son themes that shape the plot—or rather, situation, since this is a character- and situation-driven film.

Fishing platforms or “jermals” may be common in Indonesia and Malaysia, but no one before directors Ravi L. Bharwani and Rayya Makarim has ever thought to shoot a drama on one of them.

What we see in the beautifully filmed Jermal is a high level of realism that extends to the actors—or rather, non-actors. The directors said that many of the nine boys that appear in the film were actually working already on the jermal that the filmmakers inhabited for 30 days.

Though work on a fishing platform is tough and the conditions primitive, no experience is necessary. Because of their isolation they’re often a refuge for people on society’s fringes. If the movie is any indication, authorities don’t seem to mind that children under 18 are working on them, and the directors said that they knew of several other jermals in the area—one of them occupied by convicts, one by runaway children, and another by children sent by their parents to work (one less mouth to feed).

Jermal isn’t rated, but if it were it would probably merit an R for one scene of young male posterior nudity, one f-bomb, a few lesser swearwords, constant bullying, mild violence, and smoking and alcohol use.

So why am I proposing it as an option for Family Home Theater readers?

Because films, like books, can expand our world and also help us better understand and appreciate our own . . . and because this particular film is about teenagers who live an experience that’s so far removed from what American teenagers experience that it bears watching for the perspective alone. Bullying also happens to be a major concern for teens all over the world.

What’s immediately striking is that on this platform the boys have their own hierarchy, as in The Lord of the Flies, a book that most American teenagers are required to read in school. Into this world comes a bookish 12-year-old schoolboy named Jaya (Iqbal S. Manurung), whose mother told him, before she died, to find his father who works as a supervisor on one of the jermals. To continue the Lord of the Flies analogy, he corresponds to the weak and bookish Piggy who is picked on by the other boys.

At first, the sullen, warm beer-drinking Johar (played by Didi Petet, for whom the script was written) refuses to acknowledge that he even has a son, much less that this boy is his. As he ignores Jaya, the other adult on the platform, the mute Bandi (Yayu A.W. Unru), tries to get him to accept responsibility and also keep the rough jermal boys from hurting the newcomer.

As the boys defer to a leader, their alpha, and even pay him for what ought to be a common commodity—a water container—it will remind viewers of prison films like Cool Hand Luke. In school, boys can be cruel; on the jermal, they can be almost as cruel as hard-timers . . . until (and this is one of the embedded themes) education wins out.

Language: One f-bomb and lesser swearwords
Sex: n/a
Violence: The boys shove and push and hit, but stop short of actual beating, and one boy is hard-slapped by an adult
Adult situations: Adults drink and smoke, but children also partake (with bad results), and the whole situation with Jaya feels desperate at times
Takeaway: International filmmakers are creating wonderful films using non-actors, and this is one of them