Whether writer/director Lukas Moodysson intended for the viewer to anticipate his every move in the dizzyingly depressing “Lilya 4-ever” or that predictability simply stems from the film’s focus, a downtrodden 16 year-old Russian teenager without a family or a future, one can take comfort in the fact that it just does not matter. Countless summer movies take hits from critics for their cookie cutter storylines, but “Lilya 4-ever” is not a film designed for the box office rat race that summertime brings. “Lilya” does not belong on the same billboard as “T3 or “BB2” or “LB2” for it is not product but art. And great art at that.
Riding high on the success of his 2001 release “Together,” a more lighthearted but equally impressive tale of a Swedish commune in the ’70s, Moodysson throws away all language barriers. For Moodysson is a Swedish director and his cast and dialogue for the majority are Russian. However, on the basis of the performances he has evoked from his inexperienced actors, most awardingly from his leading lady, the compellingly naive Oksana Akinshina, the difficulties of communicating with his cast were easily overcome and never visible in the finished film.
Lilya never leaves the screen during the 100-minute running time forcing Akinshina into the uncomfortable make-or-break role that actors often covet and regularly falter in. In only her second onscreen credit, Akinshina steals the show in a breakout performance reminiscent of Emily Watson’s similarly emotionally demanding debut in Lars von Trier’s “Breaking the Waves.”
We first meet Lilya proudly telling friends and strangers about her upcoming move to America with her mother and her mother’s boyfriend. While most residents of her city in an unnamed part of the former Soviet Union only fantasize of leaving the opportunity-less cold concrete of their surroundings, Lilya’s “American Dream” seems to be coming true. But, as we will cheerlessly come to see through her experiences in the film, Lilya’s hopes of a better life in a new place never meet the expectations she is promised by the likes of her mother, her best friend and her new boyfriend.
After her mother leaves for the States without her, and later renounces her rights as Lilya’s guardian, Lilya is forced into moving into a smaller apartment with the belongings of its now deceased owner still garnishing the space. Left with only a malicious aunt to look in on her, Lilya stops attending school and fails to pay the bills. Moodysson perfectly employs occasional trips to the grocery store to show Lilya’s deteriorating financial situation. Soon her best friend has painted Lilya as a whore and left her behind as well. Lilya finds her sole companionship in her 14-year-old admirer Volodya (Artyom Bogucharsky), who has been kicked out of his home and spends most of his time imitating his hero Michael Jordan, shooting hoops with a soda can.
Lilya and Volodya’s sibling-like relationship simultaneously feels like a high and a low for both orphans. They huff glue together, console each other and constantly argue over everything from the makeup of heaven to whether Lilya should follow boyfriend Andrei (Pavel Ponomarov) to Sweden for a mysterious high-paying job. In a hopeless situation you still can’t help but cheer for these familial outcasts, hoping that some miracle will finally shine down, lifting them from this constantly abusive life.
“Lilya 4-ever” never comes out with an explicit political statement. Besides the abandoned government building that Volodya sometimes calls his home, there is almost no reference to the state overseeing the destitute children. As the film tackles abandonment, prostitution and finally the international sex trade, all is seen through the innocent eyes of this lost soul with only angel-wannabe Volodya as support. Asking where the institutional help is for girls like Lilya is a natural response but one that Moodysson correctly leaves only in subtext.
“Lilya 4-ever” is as bleak, depressing and ugly as film can get. But it is also absorbing, unique and powerful. And that makes for beautiful cinema.
Rating: 4 1/2 stars.