The year is 1993, and Yugoslavia is dead. Long live the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, though that, too, will only last another 10 years. The Belgrade-based family at the heart of “Celts” doesn’t know that yet, though they kind of do: After years of political tumult that have left them all older, poorer and more cynical, they’ve learned to expect the worst of things while making the best of them. Millennial-age Serbian filmmaker Milica Tomović grew up in this era of discontented limbo, and her frayed, funny, perceptive debut feature is vibrantly colored by that lived experience. Structured around the spiraling birthday celebrations of an eight-year-old girl and the tensions it teases out in her extended family, this is a cleverly grafted feat of personal-as-political filmmaking, fueled equally by nostalgia for innocence and a wryer sense of good riddance to bad times.
A standout from this year’s Panorama program at Berlin, “Celts” has since racked up festival slots and scattered international distribution — including a deal with arthouse outfit Modern Films in the U.K. — on the strength of its lively blend of historical particularity, poppy universal reference points and easygoing queer sensibility. (Love is love in the liberal-minded household that accommodates most of the action here, except when it gives way to fractious familial discord.) It’s certainly the only film you’ll see this year in which Serbian punks and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles superfans party side by side, competing with each other for the most anarchic sensibility, and it’s all the richer for such unexpected overlaps.
The birthday girl is Minja (the delightful Katarina Dimić), a perky, sociable grade-schooler who looks up to Raphael (the Turtle, of course, not the painter), Jean-Claude Van Damme and her mournful, mustachioed cabbie dad Otac (Stefan Trifunović) in approximately that order. At her age, she knows little of the political and economic woes her family and countrymen have endured all her life, though she is familiar with their everyday effects: As a birthday treat, her live-in grandmother (Olga Odanović) resolves to buy butter for the cake, only for a ludicrous six-million-dinar price tag to send her scuttling back to margarine. The costume for Minja’s Turtles-themed party is hastily homemade; the puppy she yearns for turns out to be a three-legged mongrel borrowed from the neighbor.
Her smart, forthright mother Marijana (Dubravka Kovjanić) rolls with a life of compromise, and encourages her daughters to do the same, though Minja’s sullen, punk-loving teenage sister Tamara (Anja Đorđević) knows just enough of the times to feel more lashingly angry about things. Marijana and Otac’s marriage is at a passionless impasse — the film opens, wittily, on Marijana indulging in some morning masturbation while Otac sheepishly gets ready for work — but they get on with things all the same.
Their relative avoidance of drama stands in pointed contrast to the parade of booze-bearing friends, family and attendant issues that come cascading into the house once the festivities begin. They include Marijana’s progressive sister and brother (both gay), Otac’s estranged fascist-turned-anarchist punk brother, an assortment of stray lovers and exes, and Minja’s introverted half-brother Fica (Konstantin Ilin), whose silent, solitary, accident-prone shuffle around the party’s fringes lends the film a running strain of doleful slapstick comedy — but also serves as the connecting tissue between the children’s and adults’ worlds, which grow ever more separate as the night unravels.
It can be difficult to parse the exact chain of relations and connections in the grownups’ increasingly rowdy, sexually restless gathering, though it doesn’t much matter. In the way it probes the fractures — both pettily personal and ideological — amid a gaggle of people with a jagged range of responses to recent events, “Celts” captures a suitable microcosm of this transitional, newly minted country. But neither does it strain for allegorical resonance. There’s a natural, conversational untidiness to Tomović’s screenplay, co-written with Tanja Sljivar, that keeps the film buoyant and convincing; ditto the giddy, easy chemistry between its expanding, uniformly fine ensemble.
Editor Jelena Maksimović, meanwhile, deserves particular credit for fluidly navigating the chaos of two parallel celebrations, finding room for tender asides and riotous one-scene jokes while holding to the film’s tight all-in-a-day structure. Well, a day and a bit: “Celts” carries us through to the morning after, showing that those who have survived national wars can also just about survive a kids’ Ninja Turtle party, with even a guarded glimmer of hope left for the future.