A correction was made to this review on Mar. 9, 2004.
Gracefully composed and moving yet never maudlin, “Koktebel” reps a most auspicious feature debut for its two young co-directors, Boris Khlebnikov and Alexei Popogrebsky, whose only previous films are their co-directed shorts. A joint winner (along with Piotr Trzaskalski’s “Edi”) of the Philip Morris Film Prize at Karlovy Vary, pic also reaped the best direction award in Moscow last June, and will undoubtedly travel further still on the fest circuit. Though a smidge on the languorous side, film could with critical support pull substantial numbers with upscale auds.
In less talented hands, the simple plot could have turned into just another road movie about a father and son slowly making their way by foot, boxcar and thumbed rides to the seaside city of the title. Instead, helmers’ taut script, skill with performers and loving eye for natural beauty create a film that, in its best moments, recalls vintage Terrence Malick.
The first reel sets up the story, tone and texture nicely. The protagonists, unnamed throughout and called simply “the father” (Igor Chernevich) and “the son” (Gleb Puskepalis) in the closing credits, emerge from a storm drain shelter at dawn carrying tatty camping gear. Their destination, a Crimean resort town, and the strained nature of their relationship is roughed in with a few economical exchanges.
The prematurely fretful lad of 11 wonders if they’ll be walking the thousand-or-more miles from their Moscow embarkation point. Dad, his face like a hundred versts of bad road, jocularly replies that they might take a taxi or a train or fly, which segues into a discussion of how big-winged birds use air currents to glide for miles.
“Guess he ran out of current,” observes the boy morosely of a flapping falcon. This strain of none-too-subtle aviary imagery runs throughout pic, a mild clunkiness that betrays the directors’ youth in an otherwise cliche-free script, that won a prize at the European PitchPoint event in Berlin, 2001.
As father and son dally with various strangers, their backstory emerges. The death of the boy’s mother exacerbated the father’s drinking problem, leading him to lose his job (he had been an aviation engineer) and then the family flat in Moscow. With nothing left to lose, they’re migrating south but Pop’s in no special hurry to get there.
They pitch camp at the crumbling dacha of a lonely curmudgeon, Mikhael (Vladimir Kucherenko), where the father offers to fix the roof for money. Staying on for a spell, Dad falls off the wagon big-time. Mikhael ends up shooting him in the shoulder during a drunken brawl, and the father and son find shelter with a woman country doctor, Xenia (Agrippina Stekhlova), who mends Dad’s wounds.
When a sexual relationship between Dad and the doctor sprouts, he suggests seeing out the winter at her place. The son, yearning to see the sea, goes off by himself, with only an atlas in plastic bag to guide him.
But Koktebel, renamed Planerskoe in 1944, turns out more tatty than he imagined. The broken-down city is like a concrete monument to the gliders the boy’s father told him about. Final reel throws in a couple of nimbly executed twists.
Understated perfs make pic all the more emotionally involving. Chernevich and Puskepalis ably project the guilt, resentment and budding co-dependence that brews in families afflicted with alcoholism. Kucherenko is both monstrous and endearing as the violent Mikhael, and Stekhlova is solid in the slightly underwritten part of Xenia, a real-looking woman with chunky thighs and a mass of lustrous red hair that matches pic’s autumn palette.
Arresting visuals and spaced-out, dreamy atmosphere are pic’s strongest suit, recalling ’70s Malick in the use of long-shot vistas and nature close-ups, sparse musical arrangements, and the alternation between movement and becalmed quietude. There’s a bit of the contempo, Euroteur handheld style in the pic, too, reminiscent of the Dardenne Brothers and the Dogma crowd, in the Shandor Berkeshi’s luminescent lensing. But pic also has its own unique set of tricks, employing striking p.o.v. shots, aerial views, and weird set-ups that offer splendid studies of the backs of people’s heads, as if the aud is perpetually watching people leave until we reach the end of the road.