Black comedy collides with overwrought melodrama in the patchy but interesting Tbilisi-set drama “Keep Smiling.” Georgian writer-helmer Rusudan Chkonia’s feature debut tracks 10 disparate femmes, most of them in dire financial straits, competing in a beauty contest for moms to win a substantial prize. Chkonia lays on the indictment of reality-TV culture a bit thick, and the plotting is somewhat contrived, but she coaxes gutsy perfs from her game cast and explores a side of war-torn, contempo Georgia not often seen offshore. That freshness may put a smile on fest programmers’ faces after the pic’s Venice preem.
The film opens with the 10 costumed contestants onstage, dancing to the strains of Lou Bega’s “Baby Keep Smiling,” a tune heard again over the end credits and several times throughout, suggesting the production’s clearance-rights budget didn’t stretch far. The next scene shows everyone crowding into a backstage room to gasp at something unseen that horrifies them, suggesting things are going to end badly for someone.
The action then rolls back several weeks to show the women arriving at a TV studio, where they’re informed they made the cut to appear on a new show, “Georgian Mother.” Slimy series producer Otar (Gia Roinishvili) has set the women various challenges in order to win the crown and, more importantly, the prize:$25,000 and a four-bedroom apartment. They will be judged on how well they cook and have raised their children, their talent and their popularity with the judges and TV auds.
Only about half the women are properly drawn characters, and they’re just rough sketches at that. Former child violin prodigy Gvantsa (charismatic Iamze Sukhitashvili, “Garpastum”) is the defiant one, but also a neurotic mess. She just so happens to live next door to fellow contestant Inga (Nana Shonia), a zaftig widow who disapproves of Gvantsa’s promiscuity and slack parenting. Abkhazian refugee Elene (Olga Babluani) is perhaps the most in need, as she shares a room at a charity hospital with her husband and four kids, although likable Irina (Tamuna Bukhnikashvili) isn’t much better off, either. Wealthy trophy wife Baya (Shorena Begashvili) looks most likely to win, especially since her politician husband is one of the show’s sponsors.
As the weeks pass, the women bicker and then eventually bond, especially when rebellion brews after the show’s producers insist they must all parade themselves in bikinis. Helmer Chkonia clearly has no time for any kind of post-feminist guff that sees beauty contests as empowering; the whole thing is merely an exercise in prurience and humiliation that has to be endured, so the main driving force of the drama lies in seeing how low each of them will go to win, or whether they’ll find strength in numbers. In a way, it’s a bit like “The Hunger Games” with high heels and swimwear.
Editing briskly maintains forward momentum, and if the rest of the tech credits look painfully low-budget, that fits the schlock-TV setting. With a bit of script tweaking, the pic could easily be remade in other territories.