‘On the Water’ Review: A Tender Coming-of-Age Story From Estonia

A pivotal year in the life of a shy teen in rural Soviet Estonia who slowly discovers his potential.

On the Water

A poignant script, attractive production design and appealing performances bring something fresh to familiar coming-of-age tropes in “On the Water.” Estonia’s submission for the international feature Oscar, the film unfolds in rural Soviet Estonia in the early 1980s, during a pivotal year in the life of the shy teen protagonist that finds him slowly unlocking his potential. The touching yet never sentimental screenplay is by Olavi Ruitlane, based on his own best-selling novel. Balancing gentle humor with the hard facts of life, veteran helmer Peeter Simm (“Ideal Landscape,” “Good Hands”) finds strong visuals and the correct tone to deliver the story.

Some 40 years ago, this sort of film would have been a staple at every international film festival, but may now seem old-fashioned. Nevertheless, the film’s sympathetic qualities and professional tech credits make it a solid bet for streaming platforms or smaller arthouse distributors.

In the small southern town of Võru, 12-year-old Andres (the excellent Rasmus Ermel, whose striking blue eyes contain pools of melancholy) lives near the banks of Lake Tamula, on what would be the wrong side of the tracks, if there happened to be a railroad. His neighbors include brawling alcoholics, grifting prostitutes and cranky, crippled war veterans. The ramshackle houses are heated with firewood and some still make do with an outdoor privy.

Andres lives with his strict grandparents (Maria Klenskaja, Kaljo Orro), who come from the “spare the rod and spoil the child” school of child-rearing. Spoiling is firmly out of the question as they hide the toys and chewing gum his absent mother sends from Sweden, doling them out, little by little. The grandfather, whose word around the house is law, tries to discipline Andres’ mind with chess and despairs at his report cards.

In spite of being a bullied seventh grader who makes no effort at school and lacks peer group friends, Andres refuses to wallow in his problems. Rather, he tries to escape them through fishing. A gifted angler, Andres is at his happiest on the water, no matter what season of the year.

A clever early scene conveys Andres’ innate smarts and wins him the respect of his alcoholic, ex-con neighbor Valter (Marko Matvere). When the crippled Kalju (Andres Lepik) dies, the boy argues that he should inherit the man’s fishing tackle because when he previously asked for it he was told “over my dead body.”

Andres is often joined in his fishing expeditions by half-crazy neighbor Kolla (Aarne Soro), whose cock-eyed vision of the world makes complete sense to the lad. But it’s the feral wisdom of Valter, who helps him build up both his body and self-esteem, which becomes the most important over the course of the year.

As the narrative unfolds episodically and the seasons change, Andres rises to various challenges and develops confidence along with them. When an emergency threatens, he finds that he can learn, excel and be respected.

Perhaps more stirringly, Andres finally registers on the radar of the opposite sex. Director Simm and lead Ermel convey the adolescent angst surrounding Andres’ tender, but alas temporary, summer romance with Maria (Aurora Aleksandra Künnapas) with convincing authenticity.

From time to time, Simm makes winning use of magical realism to depict Andres’ thoughts about his mother, an attractive blonde who somewhat resembles ABBA’s Agnetha Faltskog. The helmer also proves that he knows when it is most effective to allow a scene to play out under music without viewers hearing the dialogue.

Although there is no composer credit, the soundtrack makes affecting use of pre-existing music arranged for accordion and performed by actor Marko Matvere and Henn Rebane. The ABBA song “S.O.S.” also makes a witty, repeat appearance.

Eugen Tamberg’s handsome, blue-toned production and costume design, a winner at the Estonian Film & TV awards, works well with the natural colors of Estonia’s four distinct seasons and aptly evokes the era. Also worthy of note, is the camerawork of documentary-trained DP Manfred Vainokiv, which intimately captures the performers within the harsh beauty of the outdoor locations.

‘On the Water’ Review: A Tender Coming-of-Age Story From Estonia

Reviewed online, Nov. 7, 2021. Running time: 106 MIN. (Original title: ‘Vee peal’)

  • Production: (Estonia) A Filmivabrik production with the support of the Estonian Film Institute, Eesti Kultuurkapital. Producers:  Marju Lepp, Mangred Vainokivi.
  • Crew: Director: Peeter Simm. Screenplay: Olavi Ruitlane, based on his novel. Camera: Manfred Vainokivi. Editor: Kersti Miilen.
  • With: Rasmus Ermel, Marko Matvere, Aarne Soro, Aurora Aleksandra Künnapas, Maria Klenskaja, Kaljo Orro, Andres Lepik, Hilje Murel, Liisa Aibel, Terje Pennie, Anne Reeman. (Estonian, Russian dialogue)