Not much appears to have changed in the kitchen-sink dramas of the former Soviet Union since the human tragedies of the post-Glasnost era. Like Little Vera (1988) and Taxi Blues (1990), Lilya 4-ever puts a bleak spin on its dispatch from Russia's miserable front lines.
Things are still incomparably grim for the average citizenry -- especially the women -- left pitifully behind in the shifting fortunes of their country. If anything, capitalism seems to have been an even viler incursion into the country than the communism that defined misery for so long. Things have gone from bleak and frigid to post-apocalyptic in Lilya, where every building boasts a decay-slimed facade and pretty young girls hang out in discotheques, where chicken-hawking older men can scoop them up by the handful.
The shrewdest women seem to accept their status as disposable consumer objects and trade on whatever remaining value they have in the nihilistic logic that occurs when Russian cynicism meets capitalist economy of scale.
Lilya 4-ever takes its title from the girlish graffiti its 16-year-old heroine (Oksana Akinshina) carves into a park bench. In that futile gesture, Lilya asserts her personhood, even while the rest of the world crushes it beneath its boot in this unrelentingly brutal film.
That vicious human economy is epitomized by Lilya's mother, who is leaving for America when the film opens. She tells her daughter to wait until she sends for her. But we watch as Lilya's mother and her boyfriend cavort in bed and talk about abandoning Lilya for a new life. As usual, poverty makes family the first dispensable item, and Lilya shows how quickly the vultures move in to exploit the void.
Within minutes of her mother's departure, Lilya is set upon by an equally merciless aunt who kicks Lilya out of her apartment and installs her in squalid digs left vacant by an elderly man's death. The expected letters from Lilya's mother never arrive, and so begins a slow slide into oblivion, including eventual captivity in an international prostitution ring.
We know instinctively from Lilya's sweet Shirley MacLaine prettiness that things will turn even uglier for her, and Swedish director Lukas Moodysson rewards our worst expectations promptly. Lilya drops out of school, runs out of money and is soon spending her time abusing the lowest rung of chemical dependency. Her glue-sniffing cohort and only friend, Volodya (Artiom Bogucharskij), is a pitiful kid whose mental-patient haircut, abusive parents and hunched body make him close kin to the similarly feral children of Harmony Korine's Gummo.
Moodysson demonstrates the elements of childishness that still cling to Lilya and make her downfall even more horrific: her tidiness in both cleaning up her surroundings and brushing her teeth, her nightly prayers to the Victorian illustration of a guardian angel guiding a small blond child through the forest. Lilya retains an inward, almost animalistic willfulness to survive despite excruciating circumstances. At points, Lilya 4-ever is a brutally convincing portrait of how a child might cope with unfathomable cruelty.
Moodysson has created an undoubtedly true and depressing portrait of how Russia's women have been reduced to a commodity in the global economy. But he becomes so invested in representing the horror of her downfall -- from gang rape and worse -- he loses touch with the subtler, human dimension to Lilya's tragedy.
Lilya's hyperrealism ultimately feels too slick and contrived: Her first taste of joy at a theme park with a new boyfriend is the obvious false high before another bitter fall. Instead of a fresh insight into the international sex trade's horrors, Lilya is often just a melodrama as old as time, reliant upon many of the cliches of that genre. And just when you think things couldn't get any worse, they inevitably do.
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