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Swedish director Lukas Moodysson’s first two films were, at their best, much more than interesting: the first was the teen lesbian love story Fucking Åmål (released in the US under the wimpier title Show Me Love), and the second was Together, a study of life at a ’70s commune. Both showed an appealing visual abruptness, compassion, and skill with actors. Lilya 4-ever, in which these qualities remain apparent, is his best work to date.

Moodysson here captures a milieu of harrowing wretchedness but isn’t secretly in love with it: I didn’t sense, as I do in the films of Lars von Trier, smoke rings of smug delight in a female character’s abjection wafting from behind the camera. True, everything that happens to 16-year-old Lilya (Oksana Akinshina) is bad enough. Expecting to be taken to America with her mother, who has landed an American husband through a dating service, Lilya instead gets left behind in her wreck of a post-Soviet city (the Estonian capital of Tallinn, though unnamed in the film). Her aunt kicks her out of her apartment and into a smaller, crummier place whose previous occupant has just died. A girlfriend, to conceal her own delinquency, stigmatizes Lilya as a prostitute, exposing her to abuse from hooligan neighbors. Disowned by her mother, Lilya drifts into prostitution and is raped, but she finds new hope when a sympathetic man offers to get her work in Sweden. What happens then, though anyone can see it coming, should remain undivulged here.

Through all this, Moodysson focuses on the heroine’s resilience and defiance and on her friendship with the younger street kid Volodya (Artyom Bogucharsky), who loves her with a precocious ardor that she discourages, insisting they remain just friends. These positive elements persist throughout the movie as transcendent forces, Lilya’s toughness enabling her to endure degradation and her bond with Volodya proving her redemption, in the darkest episode of her life.

Moodysson gets you to accept a world where only the worst happens, and then he asks, "Is life worth living no matter what?" He’s sensitive enough to pose this question in a way that doesn’t flatter the audience — that is to say, he avoids making Lilya’s plight merely an object of delectation for masochistic, or sadistic, bourgeois viewers. How? Mainly, I think, through the intelligence of Akinshina’s performance, through the absence of any moment in which Lilya gives in or gives up, and through, again, the constant reassurance of her relationship with Volodya.

As rigid a trap as the scenario builds, we’re left at the end without a sense of inevitability or even with the sense that, given this particular series of accidents, the result we’ve seen was probable. Instead, the director and the actress manage to convey a sense of freedom. Which is remarkable, and enough to make Lilya 4-ever an extremely moving film. In German, English, Swedish, and Russian with English subtitles. (109 minutes)

Issue Date: July 25 - August 1, 2003
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