Amandla Stenberg has already made her mark on this year’s Toronto Film Festival with an acclaimed central turn in “The Hate U Give.” But she expands her impressive range still further with a second festival entry, Amma Asante’s heartfelt Holocaust drama “Where Hands Touch.”
Despite its upcoming theatrical release, the movie feels like a better fit for the intimacy of living rooms or classrooms, where Stenberg’s powerful performance may draw teen fans into a diligently-conceived history lesson.
The story itself is fictional, but writer-director Asante (“A United Kingdom”) was inspired by the actual experiences of Afro-German citizens persecuted during World War II. Stenberg plays Leyna, a biracial teenager whose mere existence requires perpetual vigilance in 1944 Berlin.
Her terrified single mother, Kerstin (Abbie Cornish), would prefer that Leyna stay inside all the time, away from the threats of prying neighbors, cruel soldiers and Nazi youth. That describes almost everyone in the city, since each boy, including Leyna’s own half-brother, is required to join the movement, and each girl is either a loyal Aryan or destined for danger. As the daughter of a French-African soldier she’s never known, Leyna is contemptuously deemed a “Rhineland bastard,” marking her an unwitting candidate for such official monstrosities as forced sterilization.
With youthful innocence, she ignores her mother’s warnings and begins an unlikely friendship with Lutz (George MacKay, “Captain Fantastic”), the son of a Nazi leader (erstwhile Doctor Who Christopher Eccleston). Lutz toes the party line in most ways — he spares no sympathy for Jewish “rats” — but is the only outsider to show Leyna any kindness. The two soon fall in love, oblivious to the reality both their parents understand: a relationship between people of such dangerously unequal status is impossible by any standards.
Asante has faced unfair controversy in the run-up to the movie’s release by those preemptively worried about attempts to romanticize Nazism or to exploit a tragic setting. In fact, her respect for the material is both evident and overarching. Where her 2014 film, the excellent and underseen “Belle,” was suffused with passion, this one feels guided by principle: she is intently determined to give voice to stories that have not yet been told.
She struggles with pacing and an unfocused screenplay, but even these flaws reflect an earnest attempt to grapple with overwhelming historic injustice. Asante’s loyalty to Leyna, her stand-in for so many real victims, is the film’s guiding force, and we can feel the weight of this responsibility in every scene.
The cast is equally committed to their difficult tasks. MacKay finds a way to convey Lutz’s confusion without underselling the monstrous ideologies he’s been taught to espouse. And Cornish wisely resists the urge to turn Kerstin into a maternal martyr, tempering fierce loyalty with complex anger (though her convincing portrayal of an exhausted middle-aged mother may startle those who remember her wild child roles in mid-aughties movies like “Somersault,” “One Perfect Day” and “Candy”).
It’s Stenberg, however, who carries the film, embodying a wrenching span as Leyna is buffeted between the extremes of love and brutality. Like Asante, she’s put her all into this sprawling project, pulling us in with deceptively effortless skill.
That said, the weight of history is a heavy burden for one film to carry, especially when freighted still further by contemporary parallels. Ultimately, Leyna is as much a symbol as a fully-drawn character, one young girl representing multitudes. Nevertheless, those who find their way to her essential story will come away not only enlightened, but undeniably touched.