The excellent new drama "In Bloom," Georgia's Oscar entry in the foreign-language category, has the heartbreak and hope of a country slipped inside a coming-of age-story of two 14-year-old girls.
The 1990s, in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union, were a potent and chaotic time in Georgia, one that filmmaker Nana Ekvtimishvili remembers as shaping her attitudes about women's roles in an evolving society. She wrote her own childhood into Eka's (Lika Babluani) and Natia's (Mariam Bokeria) stories.
Even without knowing that, you can feel how personal a film "In Bloom" is and how promising a first feature this is for one of the country's new wave artists. She directed with her husband, German filmmaker Simon Gross, and though the film did not make the academy's final cut in the category, it has been much awarded on the festival circuit.
Ekvtimishvili infuses the aching soul of old Russia deep in the film's bones, the anger of a violent, yet fragile independence in its face. Natia and Eka, like their homeland, are on the cusp of change, pulled between old ways and new dreams. It is clear why the filmmakers chose to shoot in the spring.
Much of this quietly feminist film examines the push-back against a patriarchal society by a new generation of girls. Specifically it looks at the old tradition of bride-napping, when 14 is considered old enough to marry.
Shot on location in the Georgian capital of Tbilisi, director of photography Oleg Mutu captures the aging infrastructure and worn faces with an authenticity that is a lovely contrast to the fresh faces of the girls. The pace is languid, the directors relying on few edits to stitch scenes together, opting instead to let the camera follow the actors for long stretches uninterrupted.
A sense of place begins to emerge as Eka and Natia move through their days — regimented classrooms, stolen cigarettes, the boys that flirt with pretty Natia, the young thugs that try to intimidate bookish Eka, the bickering in the bread lines and the piano on which Natia excels — harsh realities falling away as the music rises.
The parents represent the warring sides of an older generation. Eka's father is absent, which hangs over the house like a pallor. The reasons, revealed during the film's final moments, clarify much about her emotions and motivations.
The difficulties of navigating the shifting terrain are put in sharp focus by one event. Lado (Data Zakareishvili), the boy Natia is falling in love with, gives her a present before he leaves for the resistance — a gun. It becomes a metaphor for a way of life as the girls consider it, handle it, hide it, use it.
Babluani and Bokeria are both novices — one discovered by the filmmakers in a Tbilisi school, the other walking along the street. Yet the young actresses bring a naturalistic innocence and a knowing grit to their performances that become the strong spine of the film.
The line in the sand comes when Natia is bride-napped, not by the boy she loves, but by Kote (Zurab Gogaladze), a young tough entrenched in the past with no future in sight. It is the one place his choice can still trump hers.
The wedding celebration that comes after is an exceptional and emotional piece of filmmaking. There are toasts, two families coming together despite the violent circumstances. Natia's happiness is edged with hurt. Eka stands apart, an observer — until she begins to dance. A modern dress, an old folk dance, defiance in her face, grace in her movements. She is Georgia, coming into her own.
MPAA rating: None.
Running time: 1 hour, 42 minutes; Georgian with English subtitles
Playing: At Laemmle Music Hall, Beverly Hills; Laemmle's Playhouse 7, Pasadena