Adolescence is a perennially fertile ground for cinematic exploration. Director Kateryna Gornostai does not seek to reinvent the wheel with Stop-Zemlia, a painstakingly naturalistic depiction of that final year before university where everything and nothing is the end of the world.
Masha (Maria Fedorchenko) is the rough centre of a rambunctious crew, all flailing limbs and cheeky comments. There is much genuine love on display, especially between Masha and her two closest pals Yana and Senia, who have sleepovers and eat pancakes at Masha’s house. There is also Masha’s necessarily misplaced infatuation – shown in loving remove by Gornostai’s camera – with Sasha, a charismatic young man struggling with his mother at home. Viewers know as well as Gornostai that this crush will never amount to a lifetime of love, but there is no wry judgement or mockery in this portrait.
This respect of her teenage subjects flows through all aspects of Stop-Zemlia. When Masha’s exams do not go as expected, her father is there to support and put things in perspective (she is, of course, not the first student not to have been accepted by her first choice university on the first try, and there may be blessings she is unaware of waiting to come out of life). But this does not lessen Fedorchenko’s quiet anguish and uncertainty as to the future she imagined in heart-to-hearts with her dear friends seems to have taken a wrong turn. Of course, the subjects of soul-baring conversations may not be remembered ten years down the line, but their immediacy is all-encompassing. This storytelling earnestness uncovers authenticity without being overly knowing or wilfully innocent.
Gornostai worked with non-professional actors playing fictional characters (named after themselves, but with no explicit biographical connection aside from what the actors imbued), giving the young cast freedom to improvise their own dialogue within the framework of a scene. This avoids the problem of older adults writing teen dialogue – a vital step to making Stop-Zemlia feel fresh and unpatronizing. While very much a work of fiction, the film gains a quasi-documentary feel from in-character, to-camera interviews bookending each little slice of teenage life. However, the film wants to cover more ground than two full hours can grant.
Stop-Zemlia moves all too quickly over some stickier territory: bullying, self-harm, and drug use emerge to round out these portraits, but these details occasionally feel like set dressing rather than humanizing touches. “I’m not there [the past] anymore and I’m not there [the future] yet”, Masha says to her friends. Stop-Zemlia knows that the liminal space before adulthood begins has no potential for greatness, but much for unforgettable connections.
Stop-Zemlia opens in limited theatres and VOD on January 21
by Carmen Paddock
Carmen is an American living in Scotland. She holds a Masters in International Film Business from the University of Exeter / London Film School, and while now working in technology she keeps her love of film alive through overenthusiastic writing and an unhealthy amount of time spent at the cinema. Favourite films include West Side Story, 10 Things I Hate About You, Ever After, and Thor: Ragnarok. Follow her on Twitter @CarmenChloie