Gentle period drama “The Little Comrade” is an affecting and richly visualized coming-of-age story set in Soviet Estonia during the Stalinist terror of the 1950s. Adapting two autobiographical novels by Leelo Tungal, one of Estonia’s most beloved authors, documentary maker-turned-feature writer-director Moonika Siimets successfully captures the perplexed perspective of a traumatized 6-year-old who sees her mother, a school principal, arrested and taken away at gunpoint. The film was released in March, became a huge hit and currently ranks No. 4 all time at the Estonian box office. Further festival play is assured after its international premiere in Busan.
Intelligent and inquisitive, young Leelo Tungal (angel-faced Helena-Maria Reisner), can’t wait to start her education at the provincial school where her parents Helmes (Eva Koldits) and Feliks (Tambet Tuisk, very good) teach. Oblivious to the political portents of the time, Leelo idolizes the school’s red-kerchiefed “young pioneers,” the kids that she sees singing the Soviet anthem and shouting slogans, much to her father’s hidden chagrin. She doesn’t realize that she will never be a pioneer — not with a mother accused of being an enemy of the people for having “nationalist tendencies.”
With the limited comprehension of childhood, Leelo feels it is somehow her fault that her mother has gone away. She takes to heart mom’s admonition to “be a good girl,” and hopes she can somehow facilitate her return with sterling behavior. But the more Leelo tries, the more she gets into trouble. Her outspokenness and lack of guile create problems for the adults who care for her. Over the course of the film, Siimets equates Leelo’s coming-of-age with a loss of innocence that especially resonates when the child truly understands the reason for her mother’s absence.
Siimets’ screenplay makes it possible for those unfamiliar with Baltic history to comprehend what is going on from Leelo’s point of view, as even the everyday language around her changes. “What’s a comrade?” she whispers to her father. His answer: “It’s a respected person, like ‘sir’ or ‘madam’ used to be.” She doesn’t understand why some people get upset when she sings Estonian songs and others object to Russian ones. She wonders why the sports medals that her father is so proud of must be secretly thrown away and why scary, black-clad men — the NKVD secret police —confiscate their Estonian flag.
Siimets and her adorable lead actress create numerous instances of plaintive humor around the young Leelo’s inability to correctly interpret situations. Call them “out of the mouths of babes” moments, such as when Leelo overhears her beloved Aunt Anne (Liina Vahtrik) say she fears being sent to Siberia, and the child primly reminds Auntie that she could find her brother there. Even more poignant is when, after being as good as she can conceive possible — cleaning the house, washing the dishes and trying to prepare a meal — Leelo tells her father that mother must not be coming back because it’s he who’s being bad, with his drinking and his dirty, smelly clothes.
The loving relationship between Leelo and her father is particularly moving; Feliks rarely loses patience and refuses to burden his daughter with information before she can understand it. Feliks’ aging parents (Lembit Peterson, Maria Klenskaja), who have lost their younger son to Siberia, also help with the child, providing her a rural idyll, but she anxiously prefers to stay with dad.
The chief criticism here is that the film’s ending feels abbreviated. After the narrative spends nearly 90 minutes on what seems like the first year of Helmes’ absence, it’s bit disconcerting to rush through Stalin’s death in 1953 and an epilogue in 1956 in just two scenes.
Although working in a classic (some might even say old fashioned) style, Siimets manages to give the material a documentary-like verve, which makes it appear like the product of real memories. The lensing by veteran cinematographer Rein Kotov (“Tangerines,” “1944”) underscores Leelo’s point of view by frequently framing the visuals according to her sightlines. Meanwhile, the stirring string score by Tõnu Kõrvits reflects Estonian folk melodies.