'Take It or Leave It' ('Vota voi jata'): Film Review

Courtesy of Allfilm
Familiar but well-performed.

Estonia's foreign-language Oscar submission looks at a single father's struggles and is the fiction debut from documentary filmmaker Liina Trishkina-Vanhatalo.

A 30-year-old Estonian working in construction in Finland is unexpectedly faced with a dilemma in the appropriately titled Take It or Leave It (Vota voi jata). This first fiction feature from distaff documentary editor and occasional director Liina Trishkina-Vanhatalo (In the Footsteps of Middendorff) looks at a man who unexpectedly becomes a father and then has to choose between caring for the baby alone or giving it up for adoption. Though not quite a story of social realism streaked with unexpected moments of grace a la the work of the Dardenne brothers — whose background, of course, was also in documentaries — this is nonetheless a realistically told drama about one blue-collar man’s struggle with keeping his head above water as he has to try and juggle life’s curveballs. 

Released at home in mid-September, this is Estonia’s submission in the foreign-language Oscar derby. It is the third time Allfilm producer Ivo Felt has had one of his titles selected to represent the country in the last five years, with his Tangerines scoring Oscar and Golden Globe nominations in 2014 and The Fencer nominated for a Golden Globe and making the Oscar shortlist two years later. Inspired by a true story, Take It or Leave It is less of a classically structured movie narrative than Felt’s earlier productions and also a little rougher around the edges. It has been making the rounds of festivals with an Eastern European focus, such as Warsaw in Poland and Cineast in Luxembourg.

Erik (Reimo Sagor) is a ruggedly handsome construction worker in Finland, a two-hour ferry ride across the Baltic Sea from his native Estonia. One morning, he gets a phone call from his ex-girlfriend, Moonika (Liis Lass), with whom he broke up six months earlier. He finds out that not only did they just have a baby but on top of that, Moonika is not interested in caring for their little girl at all. It seems like his ex might be suffering from a severe bout of post-natal depression and she’s thinking of putting the child up for adoption. For plot convenience more than logic, Moonika has decided to inform Erik, who hasn’t seen her since their breakup. Though startled by the news, he decides to take his baby girl home to his equally surprised parents, give up his job in Finland and try to raise the child until Moonika is out of her funk, which doctors suggest is probably temporary.

The early going immediately suggests what kind of film Take It or Leave It will be, with its loose camera aesthetic and realistic locations and down-in-the-dumps character struggling to survive and make ends meet familiar from countless other Euro-miserabilist titles. What helps to make it feel somewhat fresh are the details, such as the fact that Erik is a migrant worker in neighboring EU country or that it is a father who has decided to raise his baby alone. 

It is obvious quite early on to the audience, if perhaps not to Erik, that Moonika’s situation might not be as temporary as he and the doctors hope. Trishkina suggests as much when the two parents, at city hall after having awkwardly declared the birth and custody situation of their offspring, leave the building and become mixed up in a wedding party that’s exiting at the same time. The contrast between the merry newlyweds and the two new parents couldn’t be bigger and there’s no doubt that nothing like that could ever be in store for the two.

Things grow more complicated when Erik’s parents disappear from the picture — the exact motivation for their tiff is somewhat vague and its resolution later even more oblique  — and the single dad moves into a cheap ramshackle apartment. He also needs to find work in Estonia to make money to pay for all those diapers, leading to a cute intermezzo in which he becomes a handyman for a single mom who looks after both their kids while he paints and wallpapers her chic new place. The material almost seems to veer into a potentially more romantic direction before returning to its earlier vein of more sober socio-realism.

Since Erik’s goal doesn’t seem to be to get together with his ex and the idea of some kind of co-parenting agreement evaporates the moment the film jumps to “three years later,” the protagonist lack a strong goal and thus the overall narrative doesn’t really have a strong arc. And Take It or Leave It is not quite a character study, either, as it is clear early on that Erik’s a good egg who always hopes to do what’s right, with most of the missteps that he makes caused by others egging him on. Even when things suddenly take a very dramatic turn in the third act, there is a sense that Trishkina, who also wrote the script, is less interested in the situation’s dramatic momentum or character-meltdown potential than in observing it from the safe middle-distance as simply another setback that her protagonist has to deal with, which is perhaps a residue from her work in the documentary field. The fact that everything will be if not perfect then certainly quite alright in the end never seems in doubt. What will fuel some interesting post-screening conversations is the female director’s take on motherhood and women as portrayed here, which is not a rosy picture, to say the least.

Though his character on the page lacks complexity, Sagor brings Erik to life in a strong and compelling performance. Erik is someone you would want as a father or a friend, a guy who thinks about what’s right before considering what getting things right might actually entail and who is also not afraid to do whatever it takes to provide for his family. It is mainly thanks to Sagor's charismatic turn that audiences will stick with Erik throughout this drama, which more often than not feels stuck between an exercise in Estonian socio-realism and the necessity to reassuringly prove that even for working-class characters, the glass might be half-empty but all it takes is another look at the glass to realize that it's also still half-full.   

Production company: Allfilm 
Cast: Reimo Sagor, Nora Altrov, Emily Viikman, Liis Lass, Adeele Sepp, Epp Eespäev, Andres Mähar, Egon Nuter, Mait Malmsten
Writer-director: Liina Trishkina-Vanhatalo
Producer: Ivo Felt 
Director of photography: Erik Pollumaa
Production designers: Markku Patila, Kirsi Lember
Costume designer: Anu Lensment 
Editor: Tambet Tasuja  
Music: Sten Sheripov 
Venue: Cineast Central and Eastern European Film Festival Luxembourg (Competition)

In Estonian, Finnish
102 minutes