'Nina': Film Review | TIFF 2017

Courtesy of TIFF
A great performance in a largely generic story.

Bibiana Novakova plays the 12-year-old title character in this divorce drama from Slovak documentarian turned fiction director Juraj Lehotsky ('Miracle').

A 12-year-old swimming fanatic with a lively imagination is caught between her bickering, divorcing parents in the low-key and eternally overcast Slovak drama Nina. Like in his fiction debut, Miracle, documentarian turned fiction director Juraj Lehotsky coaxes a terrific performance out of the young and inexperienced female lead, here played to perfection by Bibiana Novakova. But Nina’s narrative is largely predictable and the film’s fly-on-the-wall, verite-like style clashes with Lehotsky’s reliance on an overpowering score and the inclusion of a few blatantly obvious metaphors, including the most trite of all adolescent clichés: caterpillars turning into butterflies.

After its bows in Karlovy Vary’s East of the West competition and Toronto’s Contemporary World Cinema section, this should travel to other festivals and appeal to distributors in especially Middle Europe.

Nina (Novakova) is the only child of Mom (Petra Fornayova) and Dad (Robert Roth), who are in the midst of their divorce. Mom is a former dancer but has to work as a gas-station attendant across the border, in Austria, to make ends meet. She’s also dating an Austrian (Josef Kleindienst), something that Dad, a crane operator, clearly isn’t too excited about, though it’s not clear whether this is what led to their separation.

For the first two acts, Lehotsky, who co-wrote the screenplay with regular collaborator Marek Lescak, sticks to a point of view close to Nina, which means that the viewer, too, only understands as much or as little as she does. What’s clear is that the girl might have an angelic, slightly inscrutable face, but underneath her untelling exterior, she’s a tenacious young woman bent on becoming a swimming champion and generally not someone who just lets things happen to her. Being a child, she’s also occupied creatively with creating a whole mini-world out of various materials and trinkets in a shed in the garden and has an overactive imagination.

Lehotsky plays around with Nina’s tendency to imagine things on several occasions, with scenes that are only revealed to be dreams or fantasies later on. There is also one visually striking sequence in which Nina looks up from the ground to a series of moving cranes that, seen from below, seem to be performing a dance. This may look like fantasy but turns out to be the very opposite and has some real and very painful consequences. Whenever he suggests the child’s parallel dream world, the director moves most clearly away from his gritty, document-the-world-as-it-is origins, even if in terms of their style the scenes often don’t stray too far from Lehotsky’s brand of restrained miserabilism. What does take the audience out of the otherwise quite sustained, verite-like illusion is the film’s reliance on Ales Brezina’s loud yet mournful score and the use of a few crude visual symbols, including caterpillars, butterflies and a good-luck bracelet that dramatically breaks in the pool.

The emotional toll of a divorce on a child is the film’s real subject, with Nina reduced to moving between two new homes and seeing only one parent at the time while always wondering who will pay for things like her swimming courses. If both parents seem at least semi-reasonable when alone with her, they can’t help but drag their daughter into their active dislike for their former spouse or use her to relay information, get the latest information about the other or expect them to solve any of Nina's problems. It's not that they don't want to help Nina, but it's more important for their scarred egos to get back at their ex, and Nina is the most natural go-between. 

How this plays out feels both well-observed as well as terrain we’ve seen covered before elsewhere. Indeed, there’s hardly anything new here, with the pic also not doing much to develop the story’s specific context. Despite dipping into neighboring Austria for a scene or two, Slovakia’s place in the E.U. is just taken for granted; there’s no sense of the country being a post-Communist state and the parents are working-class people that — thankfully, for them — don’t seem to struggle with poverty, addiction or any other kind of problems beyond their acrimonious divorce. All this contributes to a sense that Nina is a story that is drawn from life but also, perhaps exactly because of that, somewhat generic.  

Production companies: Punkchart films, Endorfilm, Lehotsky Film, Sentimentalfilm, Ceska Televise, Rozhlas a Televizia Slovenska
Cast: Bibiana Novakova, Robert Roth, Petra Fornayova, Josef Kleindienst, Miroslav Pollak, Simona Kuchynkova, Tomas Klobucnik
Director: Juraj Lehotsky
Screenplay: Marek Lescak, Juraj Lehotsky
Producers: Ivan Ostrochovsky, Albert Malinovsky, Katarina Tomkova, Jiri Konecny, Juraj Lehotsky, Misa Jelenekova
Director of photography: Tobias Potocny
Production designer: Juraj Fabry
Editor: Radoslav Dubravsky
Music: Ales Brezina
Venue: Toronto International Film Festival (Contemporary World Cinema)

Sales: Alpha Violet

In Slovak, German
82 minutes

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