Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sat May 08, 2021 8:14 pm 
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Yana Isaienko, Maria Fedorchenko in Stop-Zemlia

Ukrainian high school junior year class portrait is charming if a bit familiar

In Stop-Zemlia, the directorial debut of Ukrainian Kateryna Gornostai, an introverted high-school girl called Masha (winsome gamine Maria Fedorchenko) sees herself as an outsider who for safety must hang around with Yana (Yana Isaienko) and Senia (Arsenii Markov), two fellow students who share her non-conformist status. While she is trying to deal with the intensity and confusion of the year before graduation Masha is pushed out of her comfort zone further by falling in love, an emotion one of the teachers not very helpfully has presented as in psychology, something like an illness.

The main characters are all infected, then, because they find themselves in a chain of unrequited affection: Yana is in love with Senia; he is in love with Masha, and Masha is in love with Sasha (Oleksandr Ivanov). Masha's crush is used by Gornostai as an excuse to follow the handsome, sensitive Sasha's story, including his troubles with his obtrusive, verbally abusive alcoholic mother and his piano playing taught, incidentally, by an over-touchy older woman piano teacher. This hint of sexual predating behavior is one of numerous troubling details the film passes over without comment. We notice that woman's hand that won't leave the boy's shoulder. Doesn't anybody notice?

Certainly Kateryna Gornostai’s look at the troubles and joys of youth is nonetheless carefully crafted as it quietly surveys the year for the eleventh graders. The director is a documentarian who has sought to build a low keyed yet in its way panoramic drama. She uses her cast of remarkably poised, well coiffed, and nice looking teenagers to play fictional versions of themselves, centering mostly on Masha but also on a bully boy and his small sidekick and of course Masha's sidekicks and Sasha. There are probably a few too many characters, though the main ones we get to know the names of at least.

We feel like we're there, but we just perhaps don't stick around quite long enough because we move around. As Kevin Jagernauth wrote in his review for The Playlist at the Berlinale, there's an effect of "immersiveness," but that leads to too much information about characters and behavior being left aside, including some big issues. He mentions "depression, PTSD, cutting, bisexuality, abandonment, bullying" - all as "issues" the film "glides over." And don't forget the over-touchy piano teacher! Jagernauth even goes so far as to say he thinks that the more material the film adds, after a while, the "less meaningful the experience becomes."

He has a point. It's observable with the repetitious scenes of Sasha and his mother. One strong scene could have announced the dysfunctionality of their relationship, and then it could have been brought further to light by being set in another context. Jagernauth is also right that the film's dream sequences are "ultimateluy extraneous," another thing added without enriching. He likes the film's unhurried pace, its avoidance of hysteria.

The title refers to an Eastern European game of blind tag when you call that out when you think you've got someone to tag, is obviously seen as symbolic of the search for a boyfriend or girlfriend as well as lostness and needing to belong.

These young first-time actors, partly playing themselves (though interpolated "interviews" are as made-up as anything else), are presentable and unvaryingly charming. There's the buly and the bullied kid, the misfit boy, the sensitive boy, the sensitive girl. . . but aren't they beginning to blend together a little? The first-time director does a good job of wrangling the main ones within a field of what are essentially extras in a created atmosphere of familiarity, trained to feel and act if they'd nearly all been in the same homeroom class for their whole lives. They work well together - and by the way, Ukrainians are pretty good dancers.

I thought, however, of how all this might have worked better. First, as a TV series. The Norwegian series "SKAM" wisely makes each season primarily about one couple (or with Sana at the end, one person), while skillfully delineating relationships. But "Skam" has a lot more time than this film's two hours, which just isn't enough for this kind of sequence of sketches.

Though there are some intense moments. The one when three best friends cut themselves, though it's comparable to the age-old ceremony of pledging blood brotherhood (or sisterhood), feels distinctly troubling. So does the mother's continual hounding and verbal abuse of Sasha, which is just repetitious and boring after a while: we get it. Finally less and less that's new, or new-feeling, emerges, even if kids are redefined as of these times. THey can't go to bed without their phone, and they accuse each other of being "homophobe" (as they do in "SKAM" and which is a good thing). But anecdotes on the order of Senia's of being lectured for an hour by his father on contraception and finding out he knows more than his dad, deliver familiar material to us. I guess all this winds up being a nice calling card for everybody - the able, energetic Gornostai and the main young actors as well, part of a bourgeoning, youthful film industry with women directors that reportedly was on hand at the Berlinale this year.

Stop-Zemlia, 122 mins., debuted in the Berlinale's Generation section Mar. 1, 2021. It was was screened at home for this review as part of the MoMA/Film at Lincoln Center series New Directors/New Films (Apr. 28-May 8, 2021). It screens virtually May 5-10.

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