2002 TIFF Update #7: "For the Children"

Commentary by James Berardinelli
September 12, 2002

Earlier in the festival, I penned a column about the benefits of standing in line. When I wrote that, I was referring to lines for public screenings, not press ones. Queuing up to get into a media/industry screening rarely an enjoyable experience. Neither the atmosphere nor the level of enthusiasm are the same. In theory, media/industry screenings are scheduled and coordinated in such a way that every member of the working press who wants or needs to see a film will have a chance to do so. That's the way it was a few years ago. However, starting last year, the number of individuals with access to the screenings has skyrocketed. Not only are there somewhere between 600 and 700 accredited journalists at the festival, but it is possible for "industry" members to purchase passes, essentially transforming the media/industry screenings into elite public screenings. The result has been lines, long waits, and critics being shut out of films.

I learned my lesson on one of the first days I was here, when showing up 15 minutes early proved to be too late to get a seat at Jet Lag. After that, I made it a point to be at every media/industry screening at least 30 minutes early, occasionally forcing me to skip a meal or miss another movie. Both Roger Ebert and Elvis Mitchell, two of the most prominent critics at the festival, were shut out at least once. More than one critic commented that he or she intended to attend more of the public screenings, because they were less of a hassle.

A fix needs to be implemented, and I believe the festival is aware of this. There are a number of possibilities, but the most reasonable, feasible, and fair one is to open the doors a half-hour before the screening time, and, for the first 15 minutes, allow only those with press passes into the theater. After that, everyone else can go in on a first-come, first-served basis. An alternative would be to have a series of press-only screenings for the films with the loudest buzz. (The festival ended up doing this anyway - movies like Jet Lag, Auto Focus, and Far from Heaven had special, added screenings to accommodate press members who were turned away.)

One film that filled every seat at the media/industry screening was Lukas Moodysson's Lilya 4-Ever. Good buzz was one reason why the theater was so crowded, although I was there primarily because of my high regard for Moodysson's previous films, Show Me Love, a poignant drama about a teen girl's coming of age, and Together, about life in a commune. Lilya 4-Ever represents Moodysson's most powerful film to-date, a gut-wrenching look at growing up when the odds are stacked against you. In some ways, this could be considered a companion piece to Ken Loach's Sweet Sixteen, which I discussed in a previous column.

Lilya (Oksana Akinshina) is a 16 year-old girl living in the burnt-out, broken-down tenements that comprise a small corner of the world "somewhere in the former Soviet Union." Abandoned by her mother, who has flown off to be with her boyfriend in the United States, Lilya must fend for herself. Her only friend is an 11 year-old boy named Volodya. Together, the two of them construct elaborate fantasies that allow them to escape, however temporarily, from the dreariness of their lives. But fantasizing is a profitless pastime, and Lilya needs money to continue living in her run-down flat. Prostitution offers the opportunity to make a wage with little effort, and Lilya reluctantly embraces it. Then she meets Andrei, a visitor from Sweden who spends time with her, shows her consideration, and eventually asks her to return with him to the West. She is overjoyed, missing in her naivete what is obvious to Volodya - that Andrei is too good to be true - a fact that Lilya learns too late on her own.

The tone of Lilya 4-Ever is as grim as the bleak setting. Moodysson has uncovered some of the grayest, most unpleasant places in which to set this film, and the majority of the outdoor shots occur either at night or when the sky is clogged with low-hanging clouds. The hopelessness of the setting is palpable; it doesn't take much imagination to understand Lilya's desperation to escape to a better life, and why she so easily falls prey to someone like Andrei, whose kind disposition and bold promises paint a portrait of a world from Lilya's fantasies.

Lilya is a mixture of uncompromising toughness and wide-eyed innocence. She has the street-smart savvy of someone who will do what is necessary to survive, yet she still clings to dreams of Prince Charming and says her prayers every night. Moodysson does an incomparable job of bonding the viewer with Lilya, so we see the world through her eyes. Nevertheless, we have the wisdom, experience, and knowledge to recognize that her trust in Andrei will lead to betrayal and tragedy. Perhaps, on some level, Lilya knows this as well, but the chance for a better life is so sweet that she deceives herself.

Oksana Akinshina's performance is one of the film's hallmarks. Akinshina's Lilya is the sun in a gray world - a shining individual who seems incapable of being beaten down by life's repeated blows. She can be playful and childlike, hardened and practical, and seductive and sensual. There is range, force, and courage in Akinshina's work - qualities that many actors do not develop until a much later age (if at all).

There are countless Lilyas out there - orphaned, abandoned children eking out an existence however they can, dreaming of escape from the cycle of hopeless poverty that has entombed them. Moodysson weds us to this one, who worms her way under our skin as we observe her life. Lilya 4-Ever is one of the least happy films I have seen in a while, but also one of the most memorable and moving.

However, where Lilya 4-Ever is an undeniable downer, another film about the plight of children proved to be one of the festival's most uplifting dramas. Bruce Beresford's Evelyn was a tonic for anyone in need of a pick-me-up after a series of grim, grimmer, and grimmest cinematic experiences.

The bulk of the film transpires during 1954 in Dublin, and concerns a court case that led to sweeping changes being made to Irish custody laws. Evelyn bears the "based on a true story" label, but, judging by the flow of the narrative, my guess is that only the bare-bones facts remains. I don't mind when a screenwriter takes a fair amount of artistic license with the historical record, and the strength of Paul Pender's script argues that he and Beresford have made the right choices.

Desmond Doyle (Brosnan) is an average working-class Irishman, who happens to be temporarily out of work because of an employment shortage. His wife chooses this moment to run off with her wealthy lover, leaving Desmond alone to support his two young sons and his only daughter, Evelyn (Sophie Vavasseur). However, because Desmond has no job, the courts take his children away from him, placing his children in Catholic orphanages. Eventually, Desmond corrects his financial situation, but discovers that he cannot regain custody of his children without his wife's consent - and she is nowhere to be found. So he rounds up a legal team comprised of local three local lawyers (Aidan Quinn, Stephen Rea, and Alan Bates) with the intention of fighting the church and the government. With the support of those three men and a local woman, Bernadette (Julianna Margulies), he goes to battle to retrieve Evelyn and her brothers. (There is a romantic rivalry between Quinn's character and Desmond for Bernadette. Fortunately, the contest is friendly and free of the bickering that often accompanies this kind of subplot.)

The film's root theme - a father's love for his children - is a proven cinematic favorite, and Beresford develops it perfectly. Evelyn offers plenty of lighthearted humor and gently manipulative melodrama, but the climactic moment seems to come from the heart. The performances of Brosnan and Vavasseur are on the mark, and the tactic of using a sports commentator to provide a running "play-by-play" of the courtroom action is a nice twist. It's easy to view this kind of movie with cynicism, but, as long as you're not too jaded, the film's ample good will should draw you in. I believe that virtually everyone who sees this motion picture will enjoy it.

© 2002 James Berardinelli

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