Mother, I Love You (Mammu, es Tevi milu): Film Review

A fresh take on preteen strife, built around an outstanding lead performance.

Newcomer Kristofers Konovalovs plays a wayward schoolboy in Janis Nords' prize-winning Latvian drama.

The shadow of New Wave classic The 400 Blows hangs over Janis Nords' sophomore feature Mother, I Love You, but it's a testament to the success of this Latvian drama that it never feels like just another Truffaut-inspired coming-of-ager. With an excellent nuanced performance by fresh-faced newcomer Kristofers Konovalovs at its core, the tale of a wayward 12-year-old's painful transition toward maturity treads familiar turf with disarming confidence.

Since the film is in the vein of recent Czech variants 80 Letters (Vaclav Kadrnka) and A Night Too Young (Olmo Omerzu), it can and should be programmed at a wide range of festivals, not just those focusing on the issues of adolescents. And 29-year-old writer-director Janis Nords emerges as a talent to watch from a Baltic republic not renowned for its cinematic exports. Having picked up the top prize in the 'K-Plus' section of the Berlinale's youth-oriented Generation section in February, it then went on to land the award for Best Narrative Feature at the Los Angeles Film Festival in June.

Nords had made international headlines for less happy reasons at the start of the current decade, when he was convicted of nonpayment for "goods and services" after cheekily exiting a string of fancy London restaurants without bothering to pay his bills. The so-called "eat-and-run diner" now pens a sober, cautionary moral tale of how individuals must deal with the consequences of their actions, examining how a bright young lad can veer from mild naughtiness into more hazardous realms of misbehavior and crime, before the awakening of conscience and responsibility.

Raimonds (Konovalovs) lives in an ordinary Riga high-rise apartment with his mother Silvia (Vita Varpina), a doctor specializing in obstetrics and midwifery. She works long hours, and in the absence of a father or any male parent-surrogate Raimonds has become an independent kid who spends most of his free time zooming around the capital on his kick-scooter or hanging out with best buddy Peteris (Matiss Livcans). The latter has handy access to a well-appointed, seemingly unoccupied city-center residence thanks to his mother's work as a cleaning lady, and it isn't long before the two lads start sneaking into the fancy pad unaccompanied.

Meanwhile at school, Raimonds has started acting out, especially when he's around his rather more mature classmate Krista (Dzeine Ungure), imperiling his saxophone studies as he progresses toward a big concert. "Too many hormones?" his teacher-conductor perceptively asks. A minor deception involving disciplinary procedures steadily snowballs into something more serious, as Raimonds' web of deceit propels him into the enticingly mysterious but unpredictable world of adults.

Nords' sole previous feature-length credit was 2008's Amatieris, winner of the Best Debut prize at Latvia's national film festival but barely seen outside its native land. Apart from an occasional over-reliance on Zoe Keating's cello-based score (perhaps justified by Raimonds' musical bent), his control over his material here is sure and smooth. Offsetting his relative inexperience, he collaborates with the considerably more seasoned German cinematographer Tobias Datum, an AFI grad whose credits include prize-winners like Azazel Jacobs' Momma's Man and Terri, Gerardo Naranjo's I'm Gonna Explode and James Ponsoldt's Smashed from last year.

Datum's widescreen digital images capture the damp autumnal feel of Riga at night, its streets dramatically illuminated by the sickly yellow glow of the underpopulated city's distinctive high-pressure sodium lamps, his hand-held camera usually positioned at the head-height of the diminutive protagonists. The most resonant visuals here concern Konovalovs' face, the boy's saturnine features breaking into ready smiles when he's with kids his own age, but more often clouding into seriousness when he's dealing with -- and, for the most part, duplicitously manipulating -- grownups. His scenes with Varpina (also, more surprisingly, making her big-screen debut) are crucial, and they convincingly convey mother-son bonds with a complexity that ensures the film never becomes some anti-lone-parenting homily.

Production company: Film Studio Tanka
Cast: Kristofers Konovalovs, Vita Varpina, Matiss Livcans, Indra Brike, Haralds Barzdins, Dzeine Ungure, Baiba Neja
Director / Screenwriter: Janis Nords
Producers: Alise Gelze, Gatis Smits
Co-producer: Kestutis Drazdauskas
Director of photography: Tobias Datum
Production designer: Ieva Kaulina
Costume designer: Katrina Liepa
Editor: Tamara Meem
Sales: New Europe, Warsaw
No MPAA rating, 83 minutes