Spunk

The young are the restless in Vargas and Lilya

* * *


Lilya 4-Ever

Sixteen-year-old Lilya, the title character in Lukas Moodysson's masterful if relentlessly bleak new film Lilya 4-Ever, has a life that makes Judy's seem like pure Disney. But she, too, has a Romeo, a preadolescent boy with a crush on her. They live in the same dreary housing project in a suburb of the former Soviet Union, passing time by huffing glue, listening to bad techno and skirting the law. Money is scarce and opportunities are nonexistent, so when Lilya's mother runs off to America with a well-off suitor, leaving Lilya behind, the beautiful girl—short on wits but long on spunk—is slowly drawn into a spiral of degrading choices and dire consequences.

Moodysson has already demonstrated a startling affinity for the emotional lives of children, in both the young-lesbians-in-love film Show Me Love (1998) and in last year's loving but biting send-up of '70s hippie communes, Together. Here he's even more scarily adroit at mining the interior lives of his characters, paradoxically by painting such vivid, harsh external realities. (He seems to have spent a lot of time watching Lars von Trier's films.) As Lilya reluctantly slides into the one option that's always open to women without options, Moodysson turns the screws on the viewer's heart with determined unsentimentality. We watch in dismay as she makes one bad choice after another or has "choices" forced upon her, but we're pulled into the ever-darker tale by a flicker of hope that maybe decency will rear its head, that maybe the God Lilya prays to so faithfully will finally show up. (He does, in a way, but in his own time and most definitely in his own fashion.)

Lilya's naiveté is distressingly resilient; the fact that the viewer can easily see the foolishness or dangerousness of her choices is irrelevant. The point is how or whether she'll survive the journey. And as she's played by the extremely gifted Oksana Akinshina, who gingerly spins a kaleidoscope of emotions hinged on wounded, we root for Lilya. Hard. Shot with the harsh grittiness of a documentary, which gives the film an immediacy from which you often want to recoil, Lilya 4-Ever is the combo of brutality, sex and despair—and redemption —that Gaspar Noé was aiming for in his shock-schlock effort Irreversible. The difference between the two films is the relationship that their directors—and not just their characters—have to power, violence and sex that's filtered through power plays and violence. Irreversible wants to make us experience the receiving end of the fist even as its creator gleefully throws the punches, jerking off as he makes the viewer squirm. Lilya is the more genuinely unsettling film because Moodysson seems to actually know something of what it is to take and stumble beneath a crushing blow. You feel that here. And you feel it for days after.

Raising Victor Vargas was written and directed by Peter Sollett; produced by Robin O'Hara, Scott Macaulay and Alain De La Mata; and stars Victor Rasuk. Now playing at Edwards University, Irvine;

Lilya 4-Ever was written and directed by Lukas Moodysson; produced by Lars Jönsson; and stars Oksana Akinshina. Now playing at Landmark Nuart, Los Angeles.

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