'Mellow Mud' ('Es esmu šeit'): Berlin Review

Mellow Mud still 1 -Elina Vaska -H 2016
Courtesy of Berlin International Film Festival
Talented young leads elevate this bittersweet Baltic tale of adolescent angst.

A troubled teenage girl learns to roll with the punches in Latvian director Renars Vimba's debut feature.

A contemporary coming-of-age drama from Latvia, Mellow Mud is an intimate and lyrical character study of an adolescent girl struggling with multiple pressures, from family abandonment issues to budding sexual urges. Premiering this week in the Berlinale's teen-focused Generation 14 Plus section, it marks the assured feature debut of writer-director Renars Vimba. Ironically, by treating potentially sensational subject matter with admirable restraint, this rites-of-passage story may prove a little too tasteful to make much of a splash internationally. But it has sufficient high-art polish to grab more festival platforms, where it will serve as a calling card for Vimba and his quietly magnetic young star Elina Vaska.

Big screen debutante Vaska plays Raya, a disaffected 17-year-old growing up with her younger brother Robis (Andzejs Janis Lilientals) in their grandmother Olga's remote farmhouse. With her father apparently dead and her much-missed mother now mysteriously living in London, our hormonally supercharged heroine is prone to angry outbursts against teachers, neighbors and social workers. But when Olga dies suddenly, Raya treats her loss like an unexpected stroke of good luck, discreetly burying the body instead of reporting it to the authorities, then stealing her grandmother's pension money and attempting to play surrogate parent to an increasingly fractious Robis.

Raya also defies her delinquent reputation at school by lobbying hard to compete in a national English-language test, shooting for the big prize of a flight to London, where she hopes to track down her mother. This leads her into intense contact with a handsome young teacher (Edgars Samitis), creating an inevitable sizzle of sexual tension. With no adult guardians on hand to keep her in check, the love-starved, experience-hungry teenager throws herself into an illicit affair. A more schematic screenplay might have milked this dramatic twist for maximum shock value, but Vimba just treats it as part of Raya's emotional journey towards a bittersweet final round of reunions and resolutions.

Mellow Mud is a delicate drama about an often anguished time of life, all handled with sensitivity, albeit a little too understated and underpowered in places. Though this is only his debut feature, Vimba already has a mature visual grammar, often moving the story on with graceful, wordless vignettes. His two young stars are also terrific, especially Vaska, who successfully suggests brittle depths masked by too-cool-for-school insolence. Hazy, autumnal vistas of rural Latvia are another sensory selling point, as is the elegantly spare choral score by Latvian composer Eriks Esenvalds.

Production company: Tasse Film
Cast: Elina Vaska, Edgars Samitis, Zane Jancevska, Ruta Birgere
Director, screenwriter: Renars Vimba
Cinematographer: Arnar Thorisson
Editor: Georgios Mavropsaridis
Music: Eriks Esenvalds
Producers: Alise ?elze, Aija Berzi?a
Sales company: Pluto Film, Berlin
No rating, 105 minutes