'The Magic Life of V' ('Veeran maaginen elämä'): Film Review | Sundance 2019

Courtesy of Sundance Institute
Not quite magic.

Documentary director Tonislav Hristov ('The Good Postman') follows a young woman who is into live-action role-playing games in his latest, which premiered at Sundance.

A young woman from Finland uses role-playing games to deal with childhood trauma in the documentary The Magic Life of V (Veeran maaginen elämä), from Bulgarian-born, Helsinki-based director Tonislav Hristov. Issues such as bullying and alcoholism are touched upon — if never quite explored in much depth — in this non-fiction work, which suggests that not everyone involved in Live Action Role Playing (sometimes referred to as “LARP-ing”) does it purely for entertainment purposes but that for some participants, it can be therapeutic, too. Though 25-year-old protagonist Veera and her alter ego, V, are certainly a find, there’s a sense throughout that the filmmakers don’t quite know how to handle the line between fact and fiction, between prodding and simply observing.

The Magic Life of V premiered in the World Documentary Competition at the Sundance Film Festival and will find its way to other festivals on the basis of its interesting-sounding premise and Hristov’s track record, which includes the 2016 IDFA darling The Good Postman (which also played the World Documentary Competition at Sundance).

There’s an early scene during the film during which Veera, who is around 27 but looks much younger, is attending an English-language LARP-ing event in a Polish castle. During a ceremony there, she’s asked to sacrifice something that she’ll leave behind, so she decides to destroy a “bad childhood memory” in a fire. However, she refuses to explain, when asked by the master of ceremonies, what event from her youth she is thinking about specifically. This makes it quite clear that the issue she is thinking of is real and she’s using the role-playing games to deal with her very real issues.

Indeed, there’s already a clear sense at this point that Veera relishes the role-playing events because her V is like an improved version of herself who got rid of her childhood traumas and who lives her life to the fullest. Indeed, despite having emotions that can “change fast,” Veera describes V as someone’s who’s happy practically all the time and who likes to help others where and when she can. 

Since Veera has so clearly stated she doesn’t want to talk about her real childhood issues with others, even within an otherwise fictional context, what the rest of the doc does — namely to explore and bring to light specifically these issues — feels like a betrayal of the trust Veera has placed in the filmmakers. It’s impossible to gauge, from the finished film, to what extent the protagonist is on board with exposing her own painful past, though she must at least have been aware of the cameras’ presence. This odd uncertainty gives the bulk of the feature a slightly bitter and unnecessarily voyeuristic tone that Hristov never quite manages to shake.

(Spoilers in this paragraph.) Veera’s childhood problems relate mainly to her difficult relationship with her father, who’s an alcoholic and who physically abused Veera and her 2-year-old brother, Ville, who is mentally disabled. She hasn’t seen him in over a decade when the film starts, though Ville does frequent him occasionally. One of Veera’s worries is that it seems that Ville drinks sometimes at his father’s home, which, given her father’s history of alcoholism, seems like a legitimate source of worry. 

Hristov and his co-editor, Anne Junemann, thread in grainy home-video footage that turn her father into a kind of spectral presence. That said, as the narrative progresses, there’s a sense that Hristov is building toward a confrontation between Veera and her father, a meeting that’s convenient for the director’s dramaturgical ends but which feels a little suspect because it’s never quite clear who decided they should finally meet again — was it Hristov’s idea or uniquely Veera’s? More generally, the doc doesn’t reveal much about Veera beyond her childhood issues and the LARP-ing she’s using to tackle those issues, as there’s barely any mention of what she does in everyday life or she wants to do in the future. Similarly, she clearly loves her brother and her mother, but there's not much sense of how these relationships have been impacted (if at all) by her own childhood experiences.

Even the function of the role-playing games for Veera beyond finding the confidence she so clearly needs is left rather vague. As shown here, the games feel like something that’s generally empowering without offering much else in terms of complexity or insight. Hristov doesn’t do much, for example, with the fact that Veera seems to want to introduce her sibling to sword fighting and archery (with padded weapons so no harm possible), which seem like forms of role-playing as well, though how it fits into the grander scheme of things isn’t quite clear. Is she recommending this because it has helped her — and does this mean he’s similarly dealing with childhood issues? Or is he just interested in it because his sister is into it, too? Will either of them stop LARP-ing when they feel more at peace with the events in their childhood?

Veera suggests at one point she’d love to do a role-playing exercise just for fun once instead of out of necessity, but what about after that? Sadly, there's never any sense of how these characters exist or would act in the world right beyond the frame. 

Production companies: Making Movies, Kirstine Barfod Film, Soul Food
Director: Tonislav Hristov
Screenwriters: Tonislav Hristov, Kaarle Aho
Producers: Kaarle Aho, Kai Nordberg 
Director of photography: Alexander Stanishev
Editors: Anne Junemann, Tonislav Hristov 
Music: Petar Dundakov
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (World Documentary) 
Sales: Cat & Docs

In Finnish, English
86 minutes