The one indisputable element of Maja Milos' controversy-stirring debut feature is the astonishing, no-holds barred perf of newcomer Isidora Simijonovic, just 14 at the time of shooting.

The one indisputable element of “Clip” is the astonishing, no-holds barred perf of newcomer Isidora Simijonovic, just 14 at the time of shooting. Far more controversial is the graphic nature of Maja Milos’ debut feature, depicting the hypersexualized nihilism of Serbian teens. Despite a disclaimer saying none of the plentiful sex scenes were shot with underage actors (which means body doubles worked overtime), there’s no getting around the fact that Milos’ in-your-face approach raises complex issues the pic seems unable to address satisfactorily. Unavoidable censorship problems will make this largely a fest-only item.

Ethics is a tricky concept when linked to a movie wanting to show a problematic youth culture whose existence is undeniable. However, the explicit nature of “Clip,” dealing with teens supposed to be 16, makes the taint of exploitation impossible to fully shake, and questions of the validity of the “female gaze” will only intensify the discussion. Milos is unquestionably making a statement about a certain milieu, one hardly restricted to Serbia, yet runs up against the eternal conundrum of how much is too much.

Remarkably, the pic received government funding and will be released in Serbia, where it’s certain to generate a hurricane of controversy. Milos worked intensely not just with her actors, but with their parents as well, to explain her choices and make all feel comfortable with what’s onscreen. Yet such reassurances can’t be extended to every viewer; the helmer means to make auds uneasy and stimulate discussion, but the artistic filter necessary to turn a copy of reality into a critical engagement with the truth is only intermittently used.

The opening sequence sets the tone, as Jasna (Simijonovic) is filmed on a cell phone by a guy coolly instructing her to sexually proposition the camera. There’s no awkwardness here: She loves performing and isn’t too upset when the man walks away after she’s gone through her act. Throughout “Clip,” apparent from its title, is the understanding that for this generation, the filmed image is more intense than the live person in front of the camera. Reinforcing that idea, Milos constantly switches to cell-phone footage or shows teens delightedly watching images of themselves and their friends cavorting in ultra-sexual ways.

They all take their cues from skin pics, imitating the exaggerated gestures and dirty talk and then turning themselves into porn stars. They may throw on a zippered sweatshirt for school, but underneath are clothes that would make the cheapest streetwalker envious. (Kudos to the costume designers, who must have trawled every trashy market in Belgrade.)

Jasna has a family: a father (Jovo Maksic) sick with cancer; an overworked, overstressed mother (Sanja Mikitisin) trying to cope with her husband’s illness; and a younger sis. Jasna’s behavior could be seen as an inability to deal with her dad’s critical condition, but that doesn’t account for similar activity by her peers, and so her home life fills in details without acting as explanation — which may be Milos’ point.

Jasna falls hard for 18-year-old Djole (Vukasin Jasnic), who toys with her, never revealing an emotion even during sex. Instead, he humiliates her, and she plays the masochist to the hilt. The final scene is the icing on the cake, but it’s unfortunately engorged, finally pushing degradation beyond believability.

Until then it feels frighteningly real and distinctly discomforting. Simijonovic has an electrifying physicality that’s shocking for a teen so young — Lolita is Tuccia the vestal virgin compared with Jasna — and the actress is searingly intense yet also completely natural in an unsympathetic role. She’s well supported in every scene by her peers and the older thesps, especially Mikitisin, whose character could have been yet another ineffectual mom but instead is given more complex emotions to work with.

Notwithstanding the amount of sex and nudity (including prosthetics) onscreen, visuals are designed to be anti-erotic. Even so, given the age of the performers, it’s impossible to shake off questions of exploitation. Does it make it OK since Milos is a woman? How is the gendered gaze affected by a male d.p.? “Clip” blows open a Pandora’s box, but chooses not to deal with those pesky issues flying about.

Clip

Serbia

Production

A Film House Bas Celik production. Produced by Jelena Mitrovic, Srdan Golubovic. Executive producer, Igor Kecman. Directed, written by Maja Milos.

Crew

Camera (color, DV), Vladimir Simic; editor, Stevan Filipovic; production designer, Zorana Petrov; costume designers, Senka Kljakic, Marijana Radovic, Monika Ratkovic; sound (Dolby Digital), Zoran Maksimovic, Ognjen Popic. Reviewed at Rotterdam Film Festival (competing), Jan. 27, 2012. Running time: 102 MIN.

With

Isidora Simijonovic, Vukasin Jasnic, Sanja Mikitisin, Jovo Maksic, Monja Savic, Katarina Pesic, Sonja Janicic, Jovana Stojiljkovic, Vladimir Gvojic, Nikola Dragutinovic, Mihajlo Nikolic.

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