Vitus asks you to believe in a myth that pops up in film from time to time, usually in the most melodramatic of family dramas: the precocious little boy who prefers to dress like Tucker Carlson. The tiny vests and ties denote a type, to be sure. This kid is gifted. Serious. Far smarter than the adults who are nurturing him. And he knows it.
If you’re familiar with this particular personality, your first glimpse of the latest incarnation will likely give a good indication whether you’ll love him or hate him. Vitus’ titular character is introduced in a way that may not win him fans immediately. A boy of 12 is wearing a suit and shuffling on a sunny morning toward the runway of a small airport. The gate is padlocked shut, so he climbs over and hops into a plane. No one notices until he turns on the engine, at which point an employee waves his arms frantically and pleads with the boy to shut it off. Instead, Vitus gives a thumbs up, and…
Away he goes? Please. Mercifully, writer-director Fredi M. Murer immediately turns back the clock to when Vitus (Fabrizio Borsani) was a much more darling tyke of 6. His parents, Helen and Leo (Julika Jenkins and Urs Jucker), are just realizing how gifted their son is—he’s a natural on the piano, terrifically bored in kindergarten, and takes it upon himself to look up words that Dad doesn’t have time to define for him. They feel pressured to nurture Vitus’ talent, but, you know, it’s not so bad. After all, the kid can be trotted out at dinner parties to show up snooty co-workers who expect that Leo’s boasting means that the boy can play “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.” Vitus’ grandfather (Bruno Ganz), meanwhile, is more of a salt-of-the-earth type and has his grandson help with small construction projects while Gramps talks about his own dreams of being a pilot.
Metaphor alert! Vitus is being piano-benched by one generation and receiving hushed odes on the beauty of flight from another. For a while, it’s captivating. Vitus isn’t quite enough of a smartass to be irritating at this stage (see the recent Joshua or 2002’s Valentín for good examples of how exasperating these characters can become), though, admittedly, it’s mostly because Murer focuses more often on the boy’s incredible performances instead of, say, his arrogant ways with a babysitter. The awe of—and sympathy for—the child who is too smart to fit in anywhere dissipates, however, when the film skips ahead a few years. Vitus is now 12 (played by real-life pianist Teo Gheorghiu) and rebelling against whatever the world’s got. He’s sick of his mother’s stage-momness and those teachers who think they’re so smart. But really, he just wants to be normal.
Vitus, co-written by Peter Luisi and Lukas B. Suter, devolves into a ridiculous adolescent fantasy from this point. Try to keep liking the kid as he pulls off an act of supreme manipulation after deciding he no longer wants to pursue a career in music. Or becomes a whiz at the stock market. Or woos his former babysitter, going so far as to buy her a diamond ring and using statistics about death rates and peaking libidos to argue his case. This downturn is a terrific disappointment considering the film’s achievements: The acting, particularly Jenkins’ turn as Vitus’ cool, aristocratic mum and Ganz’s charming grandfather, is excellent, and the score (all piano, naturally) remains enjoyable even when the story goes downhill. It’s nearly enough to fool you into believing you’re watching one fine film—but like its main character, Vitus tries so hard to be smart that it forgets to be likable.