Lilya 4-Ever (Denmark/Sweden, 2002)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Lilya 4-Ever is the third film from Swedish filmmaker Lukas Moodysson, but, in terms of both tone and content, this effort is so different from the director's other work that it's difficult to credit that all three are the product of one man. (This should be seen as a credit to Moodysson's versatility.) Show Me Love, a poignant drama about a teen girl's coming of age, and Together, about life in a '70s commune, introduced Moodysson to the international film-going community, and showed him to be a craftsman of some talent - an accomplished cinematic storyteller whose skill behind a camera belies his relative inexperience. Lilya 4-Ever not only advances Moodysson's reputation, but represents one of the most formidable and uncompromising motion pictures of this young decade. Put it in the same category as The War Zone and The Sweet Hereafter - movies about intimate tragedies whose impact wrenches both the heart and the mind. Light entertainment, this is not. Unforgettable and challenging cinema, it is.

Lilya 4-Ever is a brutal look at growing up when the odds are stacked against you. The title character, 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 (Lyubov Agapova), 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 (Artyom Bogucharsky). 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 (Pavel Ponomaryov), 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 naivet? 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 congested 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 need to hope, believe, and dream 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.

Lilya 4-Ever (Denmark/Sweden, 2002)

Ranked #4 in Berardinelli's Top 10 of 2003
Run Time: 1:49
U.S. Release Date: 2003-04-18
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Profanity, Sexual Situations, Drugs)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: English subtitled Swedish and Russian
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1