Lilja 4-Ever opens in Denver the same day as Sweet Sixteen. Both show a gritty portrait of parentless youths thrust into adulthood too soon. Of the two films, Lilja, about a Russian girl who turns to prostitution, is more compelling, but it’s also clumsier and cruder.
R for Strong sexual content, rape, drugs, language
Lilja (Oksana Akinshina) is 16, living in a humble apartment “somewhere in what was once the Soviet Union.” At least she says she’s 16, although she might be younger. Her mother’s boyfriend plans to take mother and daughter to the United States, but at the last minute they decide to leave Lilja with her aunts. They’ll send for her later if they decide to stay. Lilja behaves like a snubbed young lady until her mother drives off in a car, and then Lilja becomes a girl again, calling and running after her mama, cutting a pathetic figure in her nightgown, slipping into a puddle of mud as the car drives off.
Lilja’s aunts treat her horribly. They move her out of her humble apartment into a stained, filthy rat-hole whose last tenant died there. Her aunts don’t even live there, they simply provide the room.
So Lilja invites friends over for a party. They listen to music and get high sniffing glue. It’s probably fun, but before long, the bleakness of her life sets in. Her friend Natascha suggests they sell themselves — lots of money for just a few minutes’ work. But Lilja can’t stand any of the men who have to pay for sex, and she decides she’d rather be poor.
Money and Reputation
Natascha actually earns some money that night, but when her parents discover it, she projects the crime onto Lilja. To make the story more believable, she hands the wad of cash to a confused Lilja in front of her father. With the tainted money comes the public reputation, undeserved as it is. Now all of Lilja’s classmates and neighbors believe she is a whore. They will not tolerate her any more, and that’s the end of her childhood.
Penniless and hopeless, she actually does turn to prostitution. Her only friend is 11-year-old Volodya (Artyom Bogucharsky), whose father has kicked him out. They make an odd couple in their unheated ghetto, but their mutual loneliness makes them fast friends.
After a few rough nights of prostitution, Lilja meets a cute guy named Andrei (Pavel Ponomaryov). Volodya sees right through him, a young man who is a little too kind, who offers a little too much, while asking a little too little in return. Lilja, who has always thought herself special, who gloated to her friends when she thought she was going to America, is all too eager to believe that Andrei really is here to save her. When he offers to take her back to Sweden, it’s as though her prince has come.
Of course, Andrei was just bait, and Lilja is kidnapped and sold into sexual slavery.
Going Too Far
Akinshina’s great performance generates a lot sympathy, but writer/director Lukas Moodysson seems to be working against her. The only tool in his toolbox is a hammer. There is no subtlety, poetry, or finesse in Lilja 4-Ever. The film is undeniably bleak, but not for art’s sake. It wants to be a cautionary tale, an eye-opener to the horrors of sexual slavery.
But if that’s the case, the movie goes too far in depicting the humiliation and cruelty heaped on Lilja. She is raped many times, and the last time is particularly cruel. At that point, I found myself asking why I was in a movie theater subjecting myself to this. If Moodysson had been sitting next to me I’d have turned to ask what he was trying to do (any excuse to turn away from the screen). I had already gotten the point, and any more abuse was simply going too far.
Be Careful What You Wish For
I thought Ken Loach’s Sweet Sixteen wasn’t compelling enough for a “social issue” movie. The movie gods answered my complaint with Lilja 4-Ever, which was much more compelling, but also too blunt and too obvious. It made me appreciate the understated qualities of Sweet Sixteen more.
Both movies make the case that kids still need parents, not just to keep society safe from them, but to keep them safe from society. Parents, as frustrating as they may be to teenagers, are there to guide them, help them, hold their hands, simply be there with the experience to deal with life.
Perhaps a collaboration between Loach and Moodysson might have resulted in a better movie than either was by itself.