Anyone who has spent much time on Film Twitter recently might know that there are two recurring subjects sure to instigate discourse wars between certain moralistic Zoomers and their befuddled elders: on-screen relationships marked by significant age gaps, and on-screen sex scenes between partners of any age, largely condemned by youthful detractors as gratuitous narrative roadblocks. That demographic won’t be seeking out Emily Atef’s film “Someday We’ll Tell Each Other Everything,” a brazenly sensual May-December romance between a teenage ingenue and a middle-aged social outcast, though beyond the festival circuit, this pretty but somewhat dreary mood piece is unlikely to end up on many people’s radars at all.
Indeed, what’s most interesting about German-born filmmaker Atef’s return to her home turf — after a directing stint on TV’s “Killing Eve” and last year’s predominantly French romance “More Than Ever,” with Vicky Krieps and the late Gaspard Ulliel — is its frank, sometimes unapologetically ugly carnality. In depicting a relationship that begins as a kind of instinctive animal attraction before deepening into something more soulful, this adaptation of Daniela Krien’s 2011 novel understands the compelling (and, yes, sometimes story-propelling) power of raw physical touch, and the ways in which people can meaningfully know each other through skin and sweat before all else.
Outside those charged moments of hands-on connection, however, “Someday We’ll Tell Each Other Everything” is something of a slog, hampered by escalating dramatic obviousness and thin characterization that largely sheds the internal monologue defining its 19-year-old protagonist in the novel, but finds no convincing way of otherwise conveying her quiet complexities. As played with alert, coltish presence by rising German star Marlene Burow, young Maria is a woman who exists slightly outside her time and place (a bucolic pocket of the former East Germany, in the immediate wake of German reunification), but her own ticking meter is hard to gauge. Atef and Krien’s script drops literary references as windows to her inner life — Maria reads Dostoevsky, at one point quoting “The Brothers Karamazov” in a stray voiceover to lend the film its title — but viewers may wonder if she’s supposed to seem this jejune while doing so.
At any rate, there appears to be more than just waterfall-haired beauty drawing two opposite men to Maria over the course of one muggy summer in the country’s rolling, grassy Thuringia region. Sweet, callow Johannes (Cedric Eich) is an aspiring photographer about her age, and they’ve been dating for long enough that his kindly mother Marianne (Silke Bodenbender) regards her as the daughter she never had. With Maria’s own home life in disarray — her mother Hannah (Jördis Triebel) is unemployed, while her father has bailed for a younger woman — she has taken Marianne at her word, moving in with Johannes’ extended family on their rambling vegetable farm, where she spends her days skipping school, reading books and offering a bare minimum of help around the place.
If Johannes and Marianne are besotted, the elders regard her with rather more skepticism. Surlier still is neighboring farmer Henner (Felix Kramer) when she bumps into him on one of her diaphanously sundressed rambles, but his severity masks a more visceral interest: It’s not long before, with scarcely any words exchanged between the two, he’s roughly handling her on his grimy kitchen table, the teen’s consent so tacit that many may wonder if it counts at all. This is a tricky attraction to dramatize without access to the participants’ words, though it’s made credible by prickly but palpable chemistry between the two leads: Kramer, best known for German TV work, projects a conflicted brute vulnerability that puts them on an equal footing in their most intimate exchanges.
Theirs is a strange, bristling electricity to which the turgid melodrama of the film around them never quite rises. Humored but ultimately unloved, Johannes is too blandly drawn a patsy for an equally weighted love triangle to ever take shape, while subplots involving Maria’s hot-and-cold relationship with her mother and power struggles at the family farm — where a prodigal son returning from the West has contentiously progressive business ideas — flare up irregularly and without resolution, all too obviously casualties of adaptation from a more expansive source novel.
Not that this languorous 133-minute film is short of room, as the push-pull dynamics of its central relationship are stretched and repeated past the point of tension or interest — toward a final act that would be easily seen coming even without some strained literary signposting. Editor Anne Fabini applies a lazy, hazy high-summer rhythm to proceedings that coordinates well with Armin Dierolf’s humid widescreen lensing, with its heavy yellow filters and slow, intoxicated movement — broken only by the aggressive cut and thrust, so to speak, of the film’s love scenes. It all combines to give “Someday,” in its best moments, a seductively fevered air that too easily wilts into overheated grogginess. “Life can be very painful, but it will pass,” Maria’s mother warns her. The film waits it out.