Life is never easy, especially when you're 14. Some teenagers have to deal with internal turmoil and anxieties but others have to face the unbearable cruelty of their surroundings. On Monday Katya (Polina Filonenko), Vika (Olga Shuvalova) and Zhanna (Agniya Kuznetsova), three ordinary schoolgirls from suburban Moscow, discover that there will be a school dance on Saturday night. The girls start feverishly preparing for the most important event in their lives. But Katya offends a teacher. The disco may be cancelled. All week the girls rebel. They try to find common ground with their parents, their teachers, their classmates and finally between themselves. On the night of the disco, a night that they have so longed for, things spiral out of control.

By
25 Aug 2010 - 12:00 AM  UPDATED 25 Aug 2010 - 12:00 AM

4.5
A spot on depiction of mid-teenage years.

RUSSIAN RESURRECTION FILM FESTIVAL: Films about teenagers generally fall into two categories, those that seek to appeal to teens (or adults regressing to their immature mindset), and those that put the turbulence of adolescence under the microscope from the hindsight of adulthood.

This highly impressive, Cannes prize-winning film for first-time Russian director Valeriya Gay Germanika falls into the latter category, which makes it a proud companion of such memorable films as Francois Truffaut’s The 400 Blows, Lukas Moodysson’s Show me Love (aka Fucking Amal), Patricia Mazuy’s Travolta and Me, Ana Kokkinos’s early featurette Only the Brave, and Frenchman Riad Sattouf’s recent The French Kissers.

Director Valeriya Gay Germanika focuses on three female school friends aged around 14-15 years old. Katya (Polina Filonenko), Vika (Olga Shuvalova) and Zhanna (Agnia Kuznetsova) form a tight-knit group in their school. Whether giggling, sharing secrets or bizarrely burying a dead cat with some goldfish, they stick together with seemingly magnetised force.

The event that kicks off the film is the announcement of a local disco, an apparently rare event in this neck of the woods to which the trio – and the older girls who dislike and bully them – immediately funnel all their hopes and plans. From this we get a vivid sense that life in the high-rise urban housing estate on the edge of Moscow where they live must be incredibly boring without the film itself being boring for a second.

Things quickly go pear-shaped. Katya’s father viciously beats and then grounds her for stealing her father’s goldfish (to bury along with the cat – don’t ask). Clearly as a direct result, she acts up in class and gets in trouble with the teachers. Her two friends reluctantly decide she’s a weight around their necks and while the deadline for the disco approaches the glue bonding this partnership starts to melt.

This film burrows so convincingly into the behaviour and emotions of its female protagonists that I blinked on discovering its two writers were both men, one Yuri Klavdiyev and Alexei Rodionov. It’s less surprising to learn that in Cannes director Germanika was awarded the youth prize and named runner-up for the Camera d’Or, given to best feature by a first-time director.

Her handling of the performances by her three young actors is remarkable, without a false note from start to finish. Handheld camera deployed for the wrong reasons (i.e. to give a film an 'authentic look’) can be annoyingly affected, but Germanika avoids wobbly-cam clichés, understanding that by allowing the actors more freedom to move without regard to fixed lighting and camera set-ups, they can lead to more spontaneous performances.

The film is especially strong in the way it captures the transitional nature of the mid-teenage years, a time when these girls are no longer children yet straining for adulthood. Invariably they get it wrong half the time, especially when it comes to alcohol (to passing out stage, in one case).

The film declines to cast the girls as either heroines or anti-heroines. Instead it captures a flow of recognisable behaviour, so that each scene is full of emotional richness and complexity. The girls’ behaviour is often far from admirable (especially when Katya decides to cruelly exploit a nerdy girl for selfish reasons) but always understandable.

Films as accomplished as this are frequently underrated by critics, essentially, I suspect, because they lack the 'big’ social or political themes that many falsely assume to be the stuff of important art. Germanika and her collaborators show however that there’s nothing quite so important as the ability to nail human behaviour with unerring accuracy and sympathy. This may be a Russian story but its characters are universally recognisable.

Details

1 hour 20 min

Genres