If you’ve seen the trailer for Der Nachtmahr, you may think you know what to expect: an assault on the senses that’s vivid visually as well as aurally. The trailer only tells part of the story, however. Der Nachtmahr is not a long form music video with a creepy creature. It’s a refreshing and remarkably heartfelt film about identity and self-acceptance.

German artist AKIZ, also known as Achim Bornhak, spent several years developing the creature that plays such a large role in the film. His background as a sculptor was the starting point, but eventually puppeteers and CG work were utilized to bring it to life. It’s an impressive feat; the creature not only looks real it also feels real.

Of course, there is more to Der Nachtmahr than a creepy but cute critter. The initial focus of the story is Tina, a Berlin teenager who spends a seemingly endless amount of time partying with her friends. These scenes are visually stunning and accompanied by a dynamic soundtrack provided by AKIZ himself along with Steffan Kahles, Christoph Blaser, Oblast, and Boys Noize.

Such eardrum-shattering and heart-pounding segments are interspersed with more thoughtful and quiet ones, where Tina tries to come to grips with the fact that this unwanted creature who has just appeared out of nowhere is not only a permanent part of her life, but also connected to her emotionally and physically. These scenes are enthralling and as effective as the party scenes, despite their completely different tone.

Tina’s well-to-do and well-intentioned parents are alarmed by what they see as Tina’s decline into mental illness. There is a dinner party scene that shares an emotional flavor with the one in the original version of Don’t Be Afraid Of The Dark, only in Der Nachtmahr it’s not horrific but instead marks a significant shift in Tina’s character development.

Der Nachtmahr, despite its achievements in style, would be nothing without the central performance of Carolyn Genzkow. Like most teenagers, Tina is troubled, self-centered, irresponsible, and confused. Genzkow doesn’t try to transform her into a plucky heroine and the movie is far better for it. Tina does undergo a transformation, and it’s one that might surprise audiences, along with the trajectory of the story.

There is a delightful thread of ambiguity in Der Nachtmahr, beginning with time shifts and dreamlike sequences and ending with a few scenes that refuse to wrap up the film into a neat package. Creature effects aside, that’s a huge part of what makes Der Nachtmahr such an unexpected treat.