Conversations on Serious Topics: Film Review

Head-on and unembellished, this is nonfiction filmmaking of an undiluted clarity and strength.

In Lithuania's official Oscar submission, a documentarian offers children and teens a chance to share their insights and philosophies.

Giedre Beinoriute, director of the documentary Conversations on Serious Topics and its offscreen interlocutor, takes kids seriously. For her affectingly straightforward film, she spoke with a dozen of them -- tweens and teens from various backgrounds -- and listened to their thoughtful comments on such matters as love, divorce, faith and loneliness. Lithuania's submission to the foreign-language category of the 2014 Academy Awards (original title: Pokalbiai rimtomis temomis) takes a bracingly unfashionable and uncommercial approach, eschewing stylistic embellishment for quiet depth. Its brief running time makes it an apt fit for festivals and small-screen programmers seeking fresh and innovative fare.

Without explanatory titles or pointedly "meaningful" editing, Beinoriute finds the right pulse for her footage, lingering in the silences and pauses where many other filmmakers would cut. In those pauses, her interview subjects reflect on her questions and on their answers. The internal dialogue flickers across their faces, most spectacularly in the case of a freckle-faced boy in a Spider-Man cap, whose presence in the film is devoted entirely to that unheard conversation with himself.

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There's no kids-say-the-darnedest-things cutesiness to the stripped-down material. Audrius Kemezys' alert camera, alternating between medium shots and searching close-ups, zeroes in on the playful and the heartbreaking, with potent musical punctuation from Gediminas Gelgotas' sparingly used score. Beinoriute conducts her interviews in drab rooms whose dirty, faded walls shout institutional neglect. Her subjects are among the first generations raised in the newly independent Lithuania, but the director's concerns transcend politics and cultural distinctions. Like their contemporaries everywhere, many of the kids in the film have already faced weighty challenges, whether they're foster children, residents of juvenile detention centers, the offspring of single-parent families or living with physical disabilities.

What comes across most powerfully is the way the children respond to the chance to be heard, and to the respect for them that's implicit in the setup. "It's important to be seen by somebody," one boy remarks. The topics may not be of their choosing -- the filmmaker can be heard posing her questions and occasional rejoinders -- but whether they're delving into creativity, self-defense or their fears, the kids determine where these discussions wind up. In the process, some put forth direct narratives about themselves, while others reveal their stories obliquely.

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There's the delightfully hammy boy who speaks of the "million" important moments in his life so far; the sad-eyed girl who dreams of shape-shifters and death; the blind girl who can't understand how anyone could doubt the existence of God. Some have learned to distinguish between grown-ups who pretend to be good and those who are. A few have rejected their parents, expressing a healthy sense of separation from their elders' hurtful irresponsibility, even as the psychological and spiritual damage of abandonment haunts them.

One of the doc's most memorable characters is a diminutive 13-year-old runaway who's reading Carlos Castaneda. Tough, clear-eyed and philosophical, he believes, like the shaman Don Juan, that there are realities beyond immediate perception. He knows that he can make his own world and is just as certain that "I still haven't reached it." In Conversations on Serious Topics, Beinoriute reaches for and achieves a powerful intimacy by daring to simply listen and observe.

Production: Monoklis

Writer-director: Giedre Beinoriute

Producer: Jurga Gluskiniene

Director of photography: Audrius Kemezys

Music: Gediminas Gelgotas

Editors: Danielius Kokanauskis, Giedre Beinoriute

No MPAA rating; 67 min.

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