Mellow Mud, a confidently directed coming-of-age tale set in Latvia is notable for its storytelling, but above all it is the presence and poise of its lead actress, Elīna Vaska, that will stay with the viewer.
Director of Photography:
Arnar Þór Þórisson
Running time: 105 minutes
Original title: Es esmu šeit
The only thing better than breaking the rules is having an accomplice to do that. Mellow Mud, a film set in the Latvian outback, is in many ways a conventional coming-of-age story about two school-age siblings who are left to be raised by their unwilling grandmother when their mother emigrates to London. However, the rules they break to cope with their situation are not only understandable but wholly relatable, even while the possibility they might be found out hangs over them like the Sword of Damocles for the duration of the film.
The central character is the elder sister, Raja Kalniņa (an absolutely flawless portrayal by Elīna Vaska), who in her final year of high school suddenly has the responsibility of taking care of her young brother, Robis (Andžejs Jānis Lilientāls), when their mother leaves, their father has died, and their grandmother and guardian, Olga, also passes away. It is no surprise that Raja is looking for a way to rid herself of this burden, and although she cleans the house and cooks for Robis, she also has her eye on an English-language competition that would send her to London for a week.
We soon discover why she wants to go to London when she looks pensively at a UK-stamped envelope. The narrative strands that ultimately enable her to take back control of her life fall into place all at once and just at the right time, but Renārs Vimba’s strong directorial hand, which makes it appear that everything is happening of its own accord and at its own pace, make it easy to look past this contrivance.
Two big relationships shape the rest of the plot in significant ways. The first is the one with Robis, whose frustration with the living situation gradually leads to him engaging in activities he is not ready for and lashing out by committing petty crimes and refusing to listen to his sister, who has taken on the role of substitute mother. This relationship alternates between playful and abrasive (a tension best visualised in the opening scene), but to writer-director Vimba’s credit it never snaps, and this domestic situation – strained yet intimate – creates real-world empathy in the viewer.
The other relationship is with Raja’s handsome young English teacher, played by a lightly bearded Edgars Samītis, who has moved to the countryside from the capital Riga for reasons never made clear, but we can easily assume that he was looking for an escape himself. Although he has no idea about Raja’s true intentions regarding London, he is captivated by her skills in English despite her having missed numerous lessons over the past year. He is slowly drawn to her in scenes that are perfectly staged because we keep asking ourselves what the physical closeness between them means and whether it will lead to a more intimate relationship.
The English title is meaningless, especially since the original Latvian title, which translates as “I am here”, forcefully conveys Raja’s resistance against being forgotten by those around her.
The two standout finds of this film are its director, for whom this was a feature-film début but who displays a very firm hand for rhythm, visuals and performances, and actress Elīna Vaska, who never pouts or struts or throws a tantrum or is too clever. On the contrary, her teenage character is that rare find in films: a youngster who actually behaves like a relatable human being and gets our empathy not by begging for it but by seeming wholly authentic.
Mellow Mud‘s filmmaking, which is solid throughout, kicks it up a notch in the final scenes, which are utterly compelling because of both the closure they bring to the story and the lack (or minimal use) of dialogue used to achieve this purpose. These scenes show us how much can be accomplished by having good actors use their body instead of their words and having the camera put us in an intimate position that allows us to observe the action without feeling like we are intruding. The effect is mesmerising and due entirely to each member of the cast and crew deploying their talents with great success.
Viewed at the Bratislava International Film Festival 2016.