Proudly humanistic at a time when such fare plays against the prevailing grain of cynical hipness, writer-helmer Alice Nellis’ distinctive third feature, “Little Girl Blue,” strikes a pitch-perfect note of benevolent mischief as it tracks the mellow mid-life crisis of a bemused Prague housewife in an evolving city. Pic valiantly held its own domestically after a late May opening amid Hollywood tentpole fare, and is positioned to lead a refreshed Czech cinema’s charge at international fests prior to midsize arthouse life and ancillary goodness.
Though translator Julie (dynamic Czech singer Iva Bittova) and businessman husband Richard (Karel Roden) seem comfortable enough settling into a modern Prague house, their two-decade plus marriage is also portrayed as decidedly mechanical, in a clever credit-sequence gag that sets pic’s shrewdly irreverent tone. To the strains of Nina Simone’s 1958 title tune, the Lorenz Hart standard (reimagined around the melody of “Good King Wenceslas”), it’s clear Julie’s approaching a crossroads.
When she hears of the overnight passing of Simone (who died in 2003), she decides to buy a used piano for the cavernous living room. This impulse leads her on a colorful comic odyssey around Prague, during which she impulsively breaks up with her theater-director lover Karel (Ivan Franek); forges an intense connection with talented oddball music shop owner Ivan (Miloslav Koenig); discovers her own husband’s indiscretion; and spends some time with teenage daughter Cecilie (Martha Issova) and her friends. A clever, touching closing shot suggests a bright future after the eventful sojourn.
Nellis injects a tangible exuberance into the proceedings, embodied by a bold decision to sprinkle the story with jagged, dynamic dance sequences. Thus, a gaggle of bohemian types leap about a dumpster; a rollerskating coed snags an airborne plastic bag; a bickering couple tango through traffic; and Julie herself twirls dreamily in front of Ivan’s adoring eyes.
As good as Bittova is in balancing inner conflict with innate optimism, she’s matched by newcomer Koenig, a regular in Nellis’ Prague theater company, whose soulful reading of the conflicted Ivan is crucial to pic’s tone. Vet Roden craftily prevents the craven Richard from becoming pic’s whipping boy.
Tech package thrums with life, led by Adam Dvorak’s snappy cutting of sparkling images from Nellis’ regular d.p., Lithuanian-born Ramunas Greicius. Other Simone tunes used include “Love Me or Leave Me,” “Wild is the Wind” and, inevitably, “Feeling Good.” Pic screened out-of-program at this year’s Czech-centric Plzen fest as “Mysteries,” the literal English translation of the original title.