Breakout performances of kids in the crossfire of brutal adult life took centre stage at the 64th Berlin film festival Friday, set in 1970s Belfast and today's German capital, AFP reports.
"'71" is the debut feature film from Yann Demange, the Paris-born director of hit British television drama "Top Boy" about warring street gangs.
It is set at the height of Troubles, the three decades of sectarian bloodshed that rocked Northern Ireland, and tells the story of Gary Hook (Jack O'Connell), a young English recruit who becomes trapped behind enemy lines in a hostile Catholic area.
Dispatched on his first search to find caches of hidden weapons belonging to local paramilitary unit, Gary and his comrades get caught up in a riot.
When a British soldier suffers a head injury from a hurled rock, Sean, a teenager from the Catholic side, lunges for his rifle and runs off, setting off a bloody chain reaction.
While the troops retreat in panic, the abandoned Gary embarks on a terrifying odyssey through blocks of flats and alleyways, trying to return to his barracks.
Along the way, he crosses paths repeatedly with the young Sean who pays a heavy price for his own recruitment as a gun-runner and errand boy for the Catholic militiamen.
Demange, a Londoner who was born six years after the action portrayed in his film, said he had aimed to make a kind of "anti-war parable" focused on the lost youth of conflict zones.
"When I was doing my research, I was struck because I found out that a lot of the key players active in '71 were just boys," Demange told AFP.
He said Barry Keoghan, who delivered a stand-out performance as the teenage Sean with youthful excitement and mournful eyes, had been crucial to portraying "young boys looking for a tribe" on the battlefield.
"He hadn't done much when we met, he's just got an amazing face and there's an amazing soulfulness -- he brought so much to the film," Demange said.
Young actor 'blew us away'
Also playing at the festival Friday was the German drama "Jack" about a 10-year-old boy abandoned to the streets of Berlin.
The film starts with Jack growing up in a messy but cosy flat near Berlin's city centre with his affectionate single mother Sanna and his little brother Manuel.
But Sanna is still a young Berlin party girl in search of love and when Jack walks in on her having sex with a new partner, his jealousy for her attention flares.
Sanna relies on the precocious Jack to take care of Manuel while she pursues her new affair but a horrific accident while she is out on the town leads family services to intervene.
Jack winds up in a children's home while Sanna retains custody of her younger son.
But the violence he suffers at the hands of a teenager at the facility and his longing for his mother lead him to break out.
When he reaches home he realises that Manuel has been dumped at a friend's house and Sanna is nowhere to be found.
The boys need to fend for themselves and in one scene steal sugar packets and cream from an expensive coffee shop on the local high street to fill their empty bellies.
They sleep in an abandoned car until they get caught by an angry garage owner and can't find a single adult friend of Sanna's willing to put them up, or a stranger keen to help.
Director Edward Berger said he had intentionally set the action in the centre of the German capital, rather than, for example, isolating it in a depressed former communist housing block.
Jack is played with shattering natural talent by the now 11-year-old Berlin schoolboy Ivo Pietzcker, who drew loud cheers after a preview screening.
Berger said casting Pietzcker was "like in the scene in the 'Fabulous Baker Boys' with Michelle Pfeiffer -- after thinking we'd never be able to find our Jack he came in at the very end of the casting call, wet from the rain, and blew us away."
Pietzcker said he had to imagine what it would feel like to be alone in the world.
"I think Jack is extremely mature for his age in the decisions he makes," he said.
"I was never in such an extreme situation where I had to make such a choice."