Director: Lukas Moodysson
Starring: Oksana Akinshina, Artiom Bogucharskij, Ljubov Agapova
Runtime: 109 minutes
Since the huge critical successes of Show Me Love and Together, young Swedish director Lukas Moodysson has been a hot name in the indie film world. The arrival on selected UK screens of his eagerly anticipated latest film, Lilya 4-ever, confirms that his talent is genuine; it also establishes that he has plenty of guts, delivering to audiences not what they’d rather see but what he wants them to. The harsh realism of Lilya 4-ever puts Moodysson temporarily in the Ken Loach / Mike Leigh / Lars von Trier bracket of filmmakers, or even one step beyond – in stark contrast to the humour and warmth of Together.
The protagonist of this story is the 16-year old Lilya, a rebellious but likeable teenager living in poverty in the ex-USSR. Mercilessly abandoned by her selfish mother, who is moving to America as a mail-order bride, Lilya is left to fend for herself with no money, no food and nowhere to live. Freed from authority, she drops out of school and spends her time sniffing glue with her street urchin friends in derelict apartment blocks. But when she runs out of glue and friends she has to accept that her only option is to hit the clubs and start selling herself to unattractive middle-aged bachelors. The cash from this keeps her alive, but it is actually the beginning of something much worse, as Lilya is about to be deceived, victimized and abused by countless men in an almost documentary-esque exposé on human trafficking and prostitution.
Although the film has a couple of big flaws – namely that it is too predictable and has several corny moments – it remains compelling throughout thanks to the combined skills of its two main contributors. The naturalistic young Oksana Akinshina lights up the screen as Lilya, fleshing out her character in a way that makes even the most pointless of scenes watchable. Meanwhile director Moodysson paces Lilya’s character arc to perfection, seeming confident in the knowledge that he can deviate from cinema’s technical norms as he wishes without lessening the emotional impact of his story.
In the end, Moodysson’s personal crusade against the illicit activities which destroy millions of young women’s lives each year makes for some pretty depressing viewing – but of course that’s the whole point. Nevertheless this film should come with a word of warning – it takes a certain amount of unflinching bravery to sit through the whole 109 relentlessly bleak minutes, but those who dare will be rewarded with a thought-provoking and highly memorable experience.