There isn’t one agreeable character in Hana Jušić’s feature debut, “Quit Staring at My Plate,” a situation which rather hinders the desire to spend more than 90 minutes with these people. The story, about a 24-year-old woman from a low-class (in every sense) family who sort of comes into her own after her appalling father’s stroke, has interesting elements, yet Jušić’s penchant for the kind of realism that essentially celebrates the ugliness of white trash lives and their tawdry surroundings makes the film difficult to warm to, despite strong performances and a certain mordant humor. East European showcases are the most likely offshore takers.
Vacationers who’ve spent time in the coastal city of Šibenik (the director’s hometown) probably won’t recognize the place, since Jušić sticks to its most unlovely streets. Marijana (promising newcomer Mia Petričević) lives in a squalid Soviet-style apartment block with her overbearing father Lazo (Zlatko Burić, “Pusher”), frumpy mother Vjera (Arijana Čulina) and mentally impaired brother Zoran (Nikša Butijer). Their open antagonisms make every meal fraught with tension, and yet their co-dependence is complete: Lazo can slap Marijana hard with a dish towel for talking back to him, but she’s not going to do anything to change the situation.
Then to no one’s sorrow, least of all the audience, Lazo has a stroke. Once he’s back from the hospital, Vjera abnegates all responsibility for her incapacitated spouse, refusing to change his diapers and even taking over Marijana’s bed, since she doesn’t want to sleep in the same room with Lazo anymore. No longer under her husband’s oppressive fist, Vjera feels free, as does Marijana, perhaps because she’s discovered that responsibility brings a sense of self-worth. The same can be said for her sudden appreciation of her sexuality, and the power she feels being an object of desire – when she gets into a car with a group of randy guys, she knows precisely what she’s doing, and however much they may think they’re taking advantage of her, she’s the one in control.
Most viewers will assume Marijana is going to want to eject her useless family; after all, she has a job as a hospital lab technician so she can make her own way. But no, this is a story of interdependence, in which abusive patterns are bound to be perpetuated in some form or other. Jušić accords Marijana no friendships; even when she reconnects with high-school chum Andjela (Karla Brbic), Marijana is incapable of sustaining a “normal” relationship, and surreptitiously spits on Andjela’s toothbrush for no discernible reason other than spite.
The very ambiguity of Marijana’s character makes her an interesting figure, and it’s always laudable to watch a young woman potentially cutting the oppressive ties of a dysfunctional family. Yet here she’s not interested in severing those bonds, just loosening them a little. Presumably her equivocal nature is meant to make her feel more true-to-life, and she certainly defies stereotype. Unfortunately she also defies likability, and only Petričević’s charismatic Cheshire cat of a performance holds interest.
Visually, the film revels in the squalid and dingy (Jušić worked in post-production on making things even uglier), but to what end? It just makes the milieu as unappealing as the characters, and surely doctoring the images to increase their unattractiveness counters the film’s slavish insistence on “reality.”