The surprise Oscar nomination of impressionistic “Hale County This Morning, This Evening” suggested a broadening of acceptance towards documentaries well beyond standard “Just the facts, ma’am” territory. Still, juggling style and substance will always be a tricky matter in that form, as evidenced by a film such as “The Magic Life of V.” This latest from Bulgarian-Finnish nonfiction director Tonislav Hristov is so invested in looking like a polished narrative feature that it seems downright uninterested in providing basic intel about its subjects.
That’s a problem, since this is no abstract slice of evocative atmosphere, but a movie about a real-life young woman dealing with family issues of alcoholism and mental disability. It’s not enough for the film to look great; can’t we get some actual insight, too? The alluring craftsmanship will no doubt keep “The Magic Life of V” — which premiered at Sundance en route to the Berlinale — busy on the festival circuit. But it’s likely to frustrate viewers who hope to actually learn something about the people being so carefully photographed.
We meet Veera as an apparent teen participating in an elaborate LARP event in rural Poland, where she and others don ankle-length robes to combat “demons” in a Hogwarts-type environ. These “live action role plays” have a therapeutic as well as escapist effect for many, as evidenced by the occasional tears, and Veera’s own emergency session with a staff “counselor” when “things hit too close to home.”
She seems to attend such large-scale games fairly often, using them to work through emotions otherwise suppressed. They’re primarily rooted in the abusive past behaviors of the volatile, hard-drinking father she’s now estranged from, in particular his treatment of her older brother Ville. Both siblings have been bullied, Ville because of his not-always-perceptible mental handicaps (dating from a brain-damaging infant fever), Veera because she’s his sister. Their mother divorced dad some time ago, when she finally caught him being violent toward the children.
Those are potent themes to explore, but “Magic Life” seems mostly attracted to the visual novelty of LARPing, as well as shots of photogenic Veera looking picturesquely thoughtful. Even when she finally has an awkward reunion with her father, who seems sincerely apologetic about his past behavior, we can’t be sure how much she’s “acting” for the camera, or how much he’s constrained by its presence.
At the Sundance screening attended, Hristov noted the film was shot over five years’ course, albeit with only 20 actual shooting days — suggesting this allowed his crew to get “only the best” material. But in reality, the effect is of real lives very sporadically glimpsed under artificial circumstances. We learn more about Veera’s ever-changing hair colors than we do about the essentials of her existence. Does she work? Go to school? Have a relationship? How does she fund these quasi-therapeutic LARPing holidays abroad?
We get a slightly better picture of Ville’s situation, because it’s relatively simple, and gets discussed when there are crises (such as his getting into a drunken scrape, or being moved into a managed-care facility). But for the most part, Hristov expects us to get involved in lives we grasp only vaguely. He doesn’t even bother conveying the passage of time, so we’re surprised when Veera says she hasn’t seen her father in 15 years — not long after she’d mentioned it had been 10.
Even the LARP world is viewed strictly from the outside, as exotic spectacle. Who exactly is Veera’s role-play alter ego “V”? The title would seem to imply “she” is the psychological key here. Yet our protagonist doesn’t act palpably different in or out of character, and has little to say about what exactly “V” means to her. It’s like making a movie about Rorschach blots without anyone interpreting them — admiring the nice patterns without the analysis that would lend meaning.
Nonetheless, “Magic Life” holds interest, however many basic questions it leaves dangling at the fadeout. A large part of that is due to the carefully thought-out aesthetic packaging, most conspicuously Alexander Stanishev’s handsome widescreen compositions.
However, the very nature of the highly worked presentation here, comparable to the relatively meager insights afforded, raises what may be the film’s most pressing question: If filmmakers are going to use real people as de facto actors in ambiguously authentic situations (let alone with three writers credited), why not just hire the professional kind, and give them better dialogue?