In Bloom

You might, without being disparaging, call In Bloom a perfect vin ordinaire of a film. It’s the sort of drama that you’ll always find at least one example of at any festival: an autobiographical coming-of-age story about two female friends, set against a particular cultural and geographic backdrop. In Bloom is in many ways a textbook example of the genre: it features classroom turbulence, family mealtime arguments, female camaraderie jeopardized as boyfriends assert their presence, and a smattering of radio pop in the background. The film could almost, cultural specificity notwithstanding, have been made anywhere: you can imagine similar In Blooms from Lebanon, Brazil, Iran, China. But it happens that this story is set in Georgia in the early Nineties, where Nana Ekvtimishvili grew up; she wrote In Bloom alone, but co-directed it with German filmmaker Simon Gross, who also collaborated with her on his own Fata Morgana (2007). And it also happens that In Bloom so triumphantly, albeit modestly, transcends its category that it’s really quite special.

The locale is the city of Tblisi in 1992, and the background is the conflict between the newly independent Georgia and the neighboring Black Sea state of Abkhazia, which started its own push for independence in that year. The specifics of the war only form, as it were, a background buzz in the lives of the film’s two teenage heroines, but we’re always aware of its presence in their everyday world: there are queues for bread, announcements of curfews, and a radio broadcast heard at the start, fiercely asserting national self-image: “There are always people in Georgia who are warriors by their very nature.” Heroines Eka and Natia prove to be warriors in their own way—just as well as they live in a world where violence is never far from the surface.

Introspective 14-year-old Eka (Lika Babluani) lives with her mother and older sister in a well-furnished, airy flat from which her father is absent. He’s in prison, for reasons that only emerge sketchily, and meanwhile Eka fondly contemplates a box of his possessions: letters, watch, cigarettes, passport from the recently disbanded USSR. As for her friend Natia (Mariam Bokeria), she lives in cramped conditions with her bickering parents, irascible grandmother, and kid brother, so it’s no wonder that her mind turns to love and escape. Natia has two suitors: local tough Kote (Zurab Gogaladze) and romantic beau Lado (Data Zakareishvili), who’s leaving to work in Moscow, but wants to marry her when he returns. There’s a nice twist in the boys’ courtship gifts: Kote the hard man gives Natia flowers, while it’s the tender dreamboat Lado who gives her a gun to protect herself with while he’s away. This gun is constantly produced throughout the story, looked to for comfort and courage, but the film neatly flouts the Chekhovian rule that a gun appearing on stage must eventually be fired.

In Bloom

The daily cross that Eka bears is the unwelcome attention of two dopey but still unpleasant juvenile bullies who loiter by a bridge (what more symbolic location in a coming-of-age film?): a scrawny twerp named Kopla, with whose family Eka’s parents may have unfinished business, and his lumbering sidekick. Eka isn’t great at standing up for herself, and best copes with this persistent duo when her more worldly friend is by her side: it’s Natia who, when Kopla throws some ridiculous action postures, spits, “Someone’s been watching Jackie Chan movies.” The payoff to this strand is genuinely unexpected, and leaves us with Kopla sloping off ruefully into torrential rain—a poignant moment in which you suddenly get an acute intimation of the kind of desolate future awaiting this unloved and deeply disadvantaged kid.

Set mostly, it appears, in spring, the film presents life in Tblisi as a sort of tarnished, precarious paradise for its heroines. The streets are sunny (until the heavy rains come), and there’s an atmosphere of airiness and birdsong, with echoes of that somehow Mediterranean-feeling leisurely atmosphere captured in Otar Iosseliani’s Georgian films of the Sixties. There’s a delicious moment in Eka’s daylight-filled flat, with the older girls smoking, gossiping, and enjoying a boisterous sing-song—before her mother arrives and the situation suddenly changes into a maidenly study group, with a decorous waltz on the piano.

But stress and unrest are never far. A queue at a baker’s van erupts into a case of bread rage. Later, at the same van, everyone just stands by and watches as Natia is abducted in plain sight by Kote and his cronies: when bread is scarce, people don’t care so much about what happens to each other. No sooner has Kote’s car sped off then the film cuts to his and Natia’s marriage, leaving us unclear how much choice she has had in the matter. At any rate, having escaped her own family, she’s now a prisoner in Kote’s—and we glimpse the merest oasis of a moment of freedom as she and Eka chat on an outside balcony. Then comes a magic moment of a sort we don’t often see in films set in the recent past: a proper old-school serenade, with a hired guitarist weaving a romantic spell for Natia. It’s a moment beautifully played by a smiling Bokeria: Natia leans against a lamppost, spellbound—you can practically see her heart beat faster in rapture.

In Bloom

This is one of several moments in which the film communicates intense emotion with absolute finesse: the girls go through a series of crises and jubilations alike, but almost never say outright what’s on their mind. The dialogue eschews neat declarations or pre-packaged moments of truth, yet we always sense acutely what Eka and Natia are feeling about their own lives, and each other’s.

In Bloom covers the familiar bases of films about adolescence: love, excitement, friendship, rebellion, danger, boredom and that curious feeling of constantly waiting for something to happen but not knowing whether you can precipitate it yourself. There’s such a feeling of timelessness and the archetypal that it comes as a shock when you hear some Georgian techno at a fairground, even more so when you get a burst of Phil Collins. The film this most reminded me of in terms of both mood and narrative is Taiwanese and set in the Sixties: Edward Yang’s A Brighter Summer Day. But some street scenes, and the moments with Natia’s family smack of Italian neorealism, while the more exuberant moments are pure early Nouvelle Vague, very 400 Blows: a class outing to the bumper cars, the two girls’ dash through a field. Yet, for all these echoes, the film emerges from a world that most of us aren’t familiar with, certainly not from the cinema—and it comes as a surprise when the specifics of that world emerge, whether in the folk music ensemble at the wedding, or in a teacher’s brief but bitter imprecations against Georgian men’s commitment to the war.

The politics may remain barely explained in the background, but the film reminds us that in childhood and adolescence, the realities of the wider world tend to hover as a hazily apprehended backdrop while the immediacies of the private life impose themselves overwhelmingly. There are a couple of scenes especially in which the thrill of the quotidian comes across with fabulous vividness—a three-minute shot in which the camera pans to and fro around an uproarious classroom, ending in a breathtaking moment of mutiny; and another uninterrupted take as Eka comes into her own, doing a virtuoso solo dance at the wedding and holding the floor (and our gaze) with magnetic self-possession. The film is shot unfussily but rather lyrically in muted colors by Romanian DP Oleg Mutu, breaking somewhat with the out-and-out severity of his work with Cristi Puiu, Cristian Mungiu, and Sergei Loznitsa. Across the board, the film is terrifically cast, and there’s a lovely balance between poetic contemplativeness and a ferocious adolescent energy that keeps threatening to burst its bounds. Vin ordinaire, maybe, but a delicious and unfamiliar vintage.