Midway through the somber but electrifyingly vivid Georgian drama “In Bloom,” there is a sequence as life-affirming and triumphant as any in recent cinema. The year is 1992, and civil war has broken out in the Republic of Georgia.
Meanwhile, in the city of Tbilisi, 14-year-old Eka is attending the wedding of her best friend – and fellow 14-year-old – Natia. She does not approve of the nuptials, which came about after Natia was, well, kidnapped, in a sense, by the man she has now wed.
As family and friends dance and sing, Eka suddenly, slowly walks to the middle of the crowd and begins a poised, confident solo dance. It is a long, unbroken shot and one of the few scenes of pure joy in the film.
“In Bloom,” winningly co-directed by Nana Ekvtimishvili and Simon Gross, has a number of memorable moments, but what makes the film a real standout is the intelligence and believability of Eka, a teenager played with stunning grace by Lika Babluani.
Interestingly, the recent films that have the greatest insight and understanding of adolescence have come from overseas – “Blue Is the Warmest Color,” “The Past” and “Wadjda.” “In Bloom” deserves placement on that stellar list.
Eka faces an anxiety-ridden life with her mother and bratty older sister. Her father is imprisoned, her school is chaotic, and her trips to the bread line are borderline anarchic. Everywhere is a war zone.
Eka is almost inseparable from her best friend, Natia (Mariam Bokeria), a teenager whose life is, if anything, even more difficult than Eka’s. Natia’s father is an alcoholic who is forever arguing with her mother; the possessive Kote (Zurab Gogaladze) aims to make her his bride; and one of the few pleasant males in the film (Lado, played by Data Zakareishvili) presents her a handgun for her safety.
This is not the worst idea, as Eka and Natia are surrounded by sour, nasty adults (minus Natia’s loving grandmother); menacing bullies; and omnipresent news reports of enforced curfews and bombings. When a man holding a machine gun visits the bread line, the line parts.
It is, to be sure, a sad film, and one that takes its time. But it is a gripping one, and as evidenced by Eka’s wonderful solo dance, includes sudden outbreaks that are positively stirring, including a scene in which an entire classroom rushes out of the school and hits the bumper cars and a group sing-along. (Music is vital to “In Bloom’s” success; sadly, Nirvana’s “In Bloom” does not make the soundtrack.)
The bumper-car sequence is an indicator of Ekvtimishvili and Gross’s brilliance in capturing the tenuous positions Eka, Natia and their friends are in. In many ways, they are still children, but they are confronted each day with violence, political upheaval and sexualization.
When a drunken wedding guest raises a glass “to our women,” it comes across not as a compliment, but a reminder that almost every female on the screen is under the thumb of a domineering male or group of males.
The film takes an even darker turn after Natia’s wedding, leading to an act of violence that further shatters the girls’ lives. As “In Bloom” comes to a close, there is a real sense that we have seen these characters mature, but we do not leave the cinema feeling good about their future.
“In Bloom” has rightfully earned high praise as another strong Eastern European drama, and while it does not quite achieve the success of, say, Romanian filmmaker Cristian Mungiu’s “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days” or “Beyond the Hills,” it remains an insightful document of semi-recent Eastern European history.
More than anything else, though, “In Bloom” is a story of thwarted adolescence. Whatever the audience knows or does not know about Georgian history, any viewer can identify with the feelings brought to life onscreen.