A well-mounted contempo fairy tale centered on a young woman with strange powers, Russian pic “The Mermaid” should net the hearts of international upscale auds. Writer-director Anna Melikyan’s follow-up to her award-winning 2004 debut, “Mars,” has abundant charm and digital trickery in the “Amelie” mold, but also a winning personality all its own. A radiant central performance by Masha Shalaeva is complemented by a strong supporting cast. A strong performer at the Russian box office, pic hooked a directing award at Sundance and will next kick off Berlin’s Panorama sidebar.
The product of a chance encounter between a lusty, busty woman (Maria Sakova) and a drunken sailor, narrator Alisa is a Black Sea-residing loner. At age five (played by Anastasiya Dontsova), she takes a vow of silence to protest her mom’s refusal to enroll her in ballet class. As Alisa grows, so does the nature of her rebellion.
When her violence and silence are mistaken for intellectual disability, Alisa is shipped off to a special-needs school. With the help of a Down syndrome student, the girl discovers that, with sufficient concentration, she can move inanimate objects. People, however, remain beyond her control.
Approaching her 18th birthday, dank-haired and disheveled Alisa (now played by Shalaeva) is reunited with her mom in a Moscow high-rise. Alisa starts receiving prophetic messages from billboards and signs throughout the city; aptly, she finds work as a walking advertisement herself, dressed in a rubber suit as a cell phone mascot.
Alisa’s job allows her to anonymously view Moscow’s oddball population and leads to a casual sexual liaison with ad man Sasha (local heartthrob Evgeny Tsyganov), who is unappreciative of her devotion, even when she uses her telekinetic powers to protect him. Sasha prefers blonde bombshell Rita (malevolently erotic Irina Skrinichenko), setting off a contest for his affections before the circuitous narrative reaches a gasp-inspiring denouement.
Elfin, toothy Shalaeva positively glows onscreen and seamlessly builds on Dontsova’s charming depiction of the younger Alisa. Supporting perfs are all impressive.
Pic, co-scripted by Natalia Nazarova, reveals traces of Melikyan’s background in commercials, but its emotional richness transcends mere visual slickness. Like “Amelie,” pic takes full advantage of convincing digital effects to underline its fantasy elements, and Oleg Kirichenko’s superb lensing further enhances the bravura visuals.
Igor Vdovin’s catchy, cheerful score faultlessly changes register when the narrative requires dramatic tension. Other credits are top-notch, and the obviously big budget is all up on the screen.
Original Russian title refers to the water sprite of Slavic myth, also referenced in Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid.”