Daughter: Film Review

Daughter Film Still - H 2013
Beautifully shot drama maintains an emotionally involving level of mystery despite a few stumbles in tone.

A brooding, low-key drama pits innocence versus experience as a serial killer targets teen girls in rural Russia.

PALM SPRINGS — The central character of the handsomely shot Russian drama The Daughter is a naive 16-year-old who lives in a provincial village. But the film’s title could also refer to any of the half-dozen local girls, most of them her schoolmates, who have been murdered in a yearlong series of unsolved crimes. Directed by Alexander Kasatkin and Natalia Nazarova from a screenplay by Nazarova, the dark tale, which received its North American premiere at the Palm Springs festival, is a solid character-driven crime saga that would benefit from a more polished, idiomatic translation for its English subtitles as it continues its travels on the fest circuit. 

Maria Smolnikova plays Inna, who’s being raised by her strict widowed father (Oleg Tkachev) and helping to raise her little brother. The image of the three of them on the father’s bicycle as he pedals down autumnal country roads is a powerful visual introduction to this tightly bound family, and especially to Inna’s dreamy, uncorrupted girlishness. 

Their father still mourns his wife with a religious self-denial that casts a heavy shadow over their household. Inna angers him when she starts pushing against his rigid rules, inspired by her new classmate, Masha. Yana Osipova is terrific as the former city girl: Vivacious, tacky, vulgar and pushy, she opens Inna’s eyes to alcohol, sex and other worldly teen pursuits and brings a jolt of life into the film. Without overdoing it, Osipova and the script also show the vulnerability behind Masha’s toughness. She’s struck by the cleanliness and order of Inna’s home, and a brief glimpse of her mother makes clear why. 

For her part, Smolnikova effectively shows that the seemingly timid Inna possesses considerable reserves of courage and strength. After the killer strikes again, she grows close to Ilya (Igor Mazepa), son of the village priest (Vladimir Mishukov) and older brother of one of the murdered girls — all of whom were drunk, none sexually molested. The discovery of Ilya's sister’s body opens the film with a scene that wouldn’t be out of place in recent-vintage Scandi procedurals, strikingly lensed by Andrey Naidenov in a palette of inky blues. 

On the other hand, the film’s glances at police business aren’t always convincing. That's specifically so in the bent-on-revenge city inspector, a careerist yuppie whose sister was a victim and who bulldozes his way into the case against the wishes of the town’s hangdog police captain. The inspector’s part is overplayed, and the two cops' culture clash is on-the-nose. In its climactic sequences, too, the film veers into emotional exaggeration, lessening the intended impact of its dark revelations. 

But the directors do succeed in creating a credible portrait of a parochial community where forces of faith, law and paternalism collide, and where a young woman’s awakening — to danger and to joy — is set against terrible loss. 

The filmmakers use well-chosen locations, with cinematographer Naidenov’s strong work heightening the material at every turn. He conveys, over the story’s months-long progress, the gradual shift from the intensity of fall to wintry desaturation and, finally, the suggestion of spring in a coda that presents at least one reconfigured family and the crossing of borders both physical and psychic.

Venue: Palm Springs International Film Festival
Production companies: Gorky Film Studio, Valday Films
Cast: Maria Smolnikova, Yana Osipova, Igor Mazepa, Oleg Tkachev, Vladimir Mishukov
Directors: Alexander Kasatkin, Natalia Nazarova
Screenwriter: Natalia Nazarova
Producers: Sergei Zernov, Svetlana Kuchmaeva
Director of photography: Andrey Naidenov
Production designer: Vadim Shafransky
Music: Alexander Manockov
Costume designer: Regina Khomskaya
Editor: Olga Proshkina
No MPAA rating, 110 minutes