A child’s unwavering gaze, neither blindly accepting nor especially judgmental, anchors Estonian helmer Katrin Laur’s “The Graveyard Keeper’s Daughter,” a pastoral tale of alcoholism and neglect. By all civilized standards, 8-year-old Lucia qualifies as a child at risk, with a largely absent father and chronically drunken mother. Yet, blithely frolicking around the titular burying grounds, accompanied by her angel, a younger girl with Down syndrome, Lucia fashions a satisfying existence from the cards dealt her, protecting her autonomy from well-meaning adults. The stylistic fluidity of the pic’s evocative fairy-tale tropes trumps any sociological overlay, increasing “Graveyard’s” arthouse appeal.
Little Lucia (Kerttu-Killu Grenman) voluntarily cares for Jats (Esther Koiv), a neighbor’s Down-syndrome child whose resemblance to the statue of an angel at the center of the cemetery makes her puppy-dog devotion seem even more special. Lucia also uncomplainingly looks after her mother Maria (Maria Avdjushko) in the aftermath of her nocturnal drunken card games at their stone house nestled deep in the woods. Her father Kaido (Rain Simmul), though happy to teach her to drive (she takes the controls of the graveyard pickup truck, gleefully perched on his lap), otherwise foists all parental obligation onto his alcoholic wife, denying any knowledge of how to care for a girl child. Yet Lucia seems none the worse for her precocious self-sufficiency, particularly leavened as it is by an elemental openness to the vibrant nature around her.
Helmer Laur and lenser Annsi Leino transform Lucia’s graveyard into a secret garden, a magical place of nocturnal mystery and daylight communion whose blood-deep natural cycles render the inevitable process of socialization quietly tragic.
But when Kaido and his family are invited to spend a week in Finland, staying with a friendly female pastor (Ulla Reinikainen), the vacation first seems as a potential game-changer. Maria and the pastor share drinks, confidences in Russian (apparently Maria’s native tongue) and kick up their heels, falling over each other in tipsy communion. This reminder of the girl she once was inspires Maria to resolve to stop drinking, while Kaido dreams of a decently paying permanent job. Indeed the visit opens each parent’s eyes to the possibility of other options, none of which outlast the trip back to Estonia.
Meanwhile, the arrival of a young, by-the-book teacher (apparently the only person in Estonia not hitting the bottle), concerned over Lucia’s low grades, threatens to topple the girl’s carefully balanced house of cards, when a disaster of epic proportions (and impressive f/x) renders all options moot.