Harsh circumstances force a resourceful and determined Latvian lass to mature beyond her years in “Mellow Mud,” a compelling, bittersweet coming-of-ager from first-time feature helmer-writer Renars Vimba. This evocatively shot realist tale benefits from a spare yet credible script and a knockout performance from big-screen debutant Elina Vaska, who conveys her character’s feelings of anger, abandonment, responsibility and first love with conviction and authenticity. Although named best film by the youth jury in the Berlin Film Festival’s Generation 14plus section, this is a title that will be appreciated by arthouse fans of all ages; extensive fest travel is guaranteed.
Following the death of their father, 17-year-old Raya (Vaska) and her younger brother, Robis (Andzejs Janis Lilientals), are forced to share a small country cottage with their paternal grandmother (Ruta Birgere), whom they despise. Given that their mother abandoned the family some years earlier to work in London, the local social worker (Zane Jancevska) tells them that it is either Grandma or an orphanage. Raya, who has been caring for their apple trees, particularly resents the fact that her grandmother is selling off their land.
When Raya returns from school one day and finds their grandmother dead, she and Robis bury her in the garden and tell no one. Raya takes on the responsibility of running the household, telling Robis, “From now on, we’re not skipping school. And you will do your homework!” With money extremely tight, she makes ends meet as best she can, and not always in legal ways.
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Unable to contact her mother by phone, Raya decides that her best chance is to compete in an English-language Olympiad due to take place in London. Although her handsome young teacher (Edgars Samitis) takes some convincing, he eventually names her the school’s candidate. After Raya wins the countrywide competition, they begin an affair, creating another secret she must keep.
When Robis discovers Raya’s relationship with her teacher, he starts to act out and challenge her authority. Meanwhile, as the school year comes to an end, the teacher prepares to move away. At Raya’s graduation, the social worker finally tumbles to the fact that the grandmother is no longer around. With Robis taken into care, Raya decides to leave for London earlier than planned.
Proving himself a director of sensitivity and a refined visual style (and definitely a talent to watch in the future), Vimba presents the action through Raya’s eyes, using sparse dialogue and expressive images. We feel her pride as, flush-faced and stuffed with too many cookies and coffee, she aces the English exam, and then we feel her pain as she vomits everything up. Inappropriate as her relationship with her teacher may be, we see her come into her own as a confident and attractive young woman, and we still root for her happiness, even if it is destined to be short-lived. What transpires in the almost dialogue-free section, set in London, is extraordinary, reliant almost entirely on the actors’ eyes and body language.
The phenomenal Vaska, who currently studies audiovisual and stage art at the Latvian Academy of Culture, is a remarkable find, certain to be in demand at home and abroad. The intimate, beautifully framed lensing of d.p. Arnar Thorisson captures her in a multitude of moods and looks, from tough tomboy to achingly lovely young woman. The other craft credits are strong and naturalistic.
A resonant entry in the hard-knock-life tradition epitomized by “The 400 Blows,” “Mellow Mud” would be better served by a more evocative English title. Even the Latvian transliteration, “I’m Here,” better honors the protagonist’s fierce life force.