Ignore the misleading title. "The Nasty Girl" is an alternately hilarious and sad, and occasionally somewhat shocking, account of a young girl's obsessive search for the truth based on a true story.
Writer-director Michael Verhoeven's film is stylish, witty and surprisingly funny, given its subject matter. Yet, in the end, he is able to fade out on a tragic moment that sums it all up beautifully, a moment as figurative as it is literal.
Lena Stolze, a remarkable actress who is utterly convincing as Sonja, ages from lanky high-schooler to mature wife and mother during the course of the film. Sonja has ethical run-ins with her Catholic school early on as she observes the nuns handing test questions in advance to those whose parents make generous donations to the church. (Sonja's family is poor, but she also gets the tests in advance because her uncle is a respected priest.)
A talented young writer, Sonja enters a European essay contest on the subject of "Freedom in Europe" and wins first prize for Germany. Soon she's in Paris with winners from other countries, and discovers there are a number of mistaken impressions about the line that separates East and West Germany.
So, when another essay contest is announced, with several suggested subjects, Sonja chooses "My Hometown in the Third Reich," seizing an opportunity to illustrate how her neighbors stood up to the Nazis during World War II.
But she soon finds herself being blocked at every turn. No one remembers anything, records are unavailable or lost and everyone in the town begins to look at her suspiciously. Eventually, the contest deadline passes.
Sonja marries, has two children and leaves this frustrating period of her life behind. But eventually, her curiosity gets the best of her, and Sonja enrolls in college and begins studying the history of her hometown. Once again, the roadblocks are put up, but Sonja is determined to find the truth, and gradually her quest becomes an obsession, alienating her friends, neighbors and even her own husband.
Perhaps the wildest aspect of "The Natsy Girl" is Verhoeven and Stolze's ability to find laughs in all of this, while keeping the compelling mystery and investigation at a high pitch. Some of the humor is so broad it would seem to be completely at odds with the material, not to mention the eccentric use of black and white and color cinematography, starkly realistic settings and false backgrounds and a voice-over narration by Sonja that occasionally shifts to other characters. Yet, somehow it all comes together very well.
"The Nasty Girl" is rated PG-13 for female nudity and some violence and profanity.