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PARIS — A pitch worthy of an R-rated knee-slapper is taken to much darker, and slightly overwrought, ends in Keep Smiling (Gaigimet), an energetic and often despondent Georgian dramedy that will be vying for this year’s Foreign Language Oscar. The debut feature from writer-director Rusudan Chkonia follows ten highly desperate housewives who enter a beauty contest in the hopes of nabbing a coveted apartment and $25,000 prize, but find themselves subjected to the whims of media hounds, chauvinist pigs and their own domestic nightmares. After premiering in Venice Days and winning top prize at the 34th Cinemed festival, the film should continue touring fests, with possibility for Euro theatrical and TV play.
Taking cues from the recent slew of pageant-driven reality shows and placing them in a narrative about 20-to-30-something femmes coping with failed marriages and broken homes, Keep Smiling is sort of like Honey Boo-Boo by way of Marc Cherry, all of it set within the grim confines of modern-day Tbilisi—a city depicted here as one big sprawl of dilapidated Soviet housing, boozing husbands and hungry refugees.
Kicking off with a cliffhanger, the story then cuts back to reveal the three weeks leading up to the “Georgia Mother 2010” contest, whose two prizes are highly sought after by the ten contestants, many of whom are single moms living in one-room apartments, with a minimum of three children. Among the participants are the failed violinist, Gvantsa (Iamze Sukhitsashvili), her full-figured, thick-headed neighbor (Nana Shonia), an immigrant (Olga Babluani) living in a hospital ward, and a perma-tanned beauty (Shorena Begashvili) married to one of the pageant’s evil organizers.
Although the movie initially features some comic moments—including the sight of the moms rehearsing a kitschy choreography to the Lou Bega track, “Baby Keep Smiling”—it eventually slides towards much more dramatic (and sometimes melodramatic) territory as it becomes clear that the women’s livelihoods depends on a contest which, in the eyes of everyone else, is just a bit of fluff entertainment. Jealousies, family tragedies and socio-economic woes rise to the surface, turning what should be a night of glamor and gaiety into a blood-filled catastrophe.
Chkonia—whose project was selected for the Berlinale Talent Campus and the Cannes Cinéfondation program—does a fine job directed her multiple players, and Sukhitsashvili is especially a standout as the intense and waiflike Gvantsa. Technical credits are more TV-friendly than cinematic, and the semi-soap operatic look of certain scenes accompanies a film that sometimes overreaches in the dramatic department, but never betrays the dark realities at its core.
Production companies: Ex Nihilo, Nikê Studio, Samsa Films, Alvy Production
Cast: Iamze Sukhitsashvili, Gia Roinishvili, Olga Babluani, Tamuna Bukhnikashvili, Nana Shonia, Shorena Begashvili
Director, screenwriter: Rusudan Chkonia
Producers: Rusudan Chkonia, Nicolas Blanc
Executive producer: Vladimir Kacharava
Director of photography: Mindia Konstantin Esadze
Production designers: Mamuka Esadze, Sopo Bazgadze
Costume designer: Nezha Rahil
Editors: Jean-Pierre Bloc, Levan Kukhashvili, Rusudan Chkonia
Sales: Doc & Film International
No rating, 91 minutes
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