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In the dark coming-of-age tale “The Pit,” narrow-minded rural Latvia seems as full of lurid secrets as Peyton Place, as well as being a locale where everyone has their nose in everyone else’s business. Marking the feature debut of writer-director Dace Pūce (who co-wrote with Monta Gagane and Pēteris Rozītis), it’s adapted from three stories by Latvian literary prize-winner Jana Egle. The action unfolds through the watchful eyes of an emotionally wounded boy stuck with his strict grandmother, but the film’s odd tone, incompletely developed characters and uneven performances fail to match the poignancy of its source. Named as Latvia’s submission for best international film, “The Pit” will premiere Stateside on Dec. 17 via streaming service Film Movement Plus.

Skinny, misunderstood 10-year-old Markus (Damirs Onackis) is unwillingly dispatched from Riga to the countryside following the death of his drug addict father, an artist. Flashbacks and gossip reveal that his mother left the family soon after he was born and wants nothing to do with him, so he falls to the care of his paternal grandmother Solveiga (Dace Eversa). But Solveiga is a long-time widow, busy with her garden and directing the community choir; she hasn’t a clue how to handle her sullen, introverted grandson.

Markus spends every free moment drawing, and his ambition is to earn a fortune by being a great artist. He resents being sent on make-busy projects by Solveiga, especially when they involve the company of his father’s alcoholic cousin Roberts (Egons Dombrovskis, one of the film’s weak acting links), who beats his meek wife Smaida (Polish thesp Agata Buzek, underused here). Roberts and Smaida live nearby with Solveiga’s brother Alberts (Aigars Vilims), a mild man with unexplained issues in his past who is unable to do much about his son’s brutality. The character arcs of these latter three are vastly underdeveloped and not as well connected with that of Markus as they could be.

As the narrative begins, Markus becomes persona non grata in the village because he abandons prissy neighbor Emilja (Luize Birkenberga) in the forest after she falls into a pit and cannot climb out. Emilja’s mother Sandra (Inese Kucinska) is justly incensed and plots a campaign to declare the lad mentally ill and sent away. Given that a flashback showing events from Markus’ perspective is placed quite late in the film, his behavior initially makes him a difficult protagonist to sympathize with.

While performing one of Solveiga’s endless string of errands, Markus meets the mysterious hermit Sailor (Indra Burkovska), probably the film’s most interesting character, who lives at the edge of the forest. Poking around Sailor’s premises, Markus discovers an art project, a beautiful but incomplete stained-glass window. Soon, unbeknownst to Solveiga, he and his fellow loner are working together to finish it.

It’s Sailor who delivers the line that is the film’s leitmotif: “We all have our secrets.” Indeed, the short stories in the book that the film is based on, “Into the Light,” are predicated on bringing into view unspoken issues such as stigmatized sexuality, domestic violence, bullying and emotional trauma. But the film’s screenplay fails to do much with or about the issues it exposes.

Likewise, the production design had a real opportunity to treat the forest at the edge of the village as a liminal space, a place between youth and experience, between belonging and being outcast, between naturalism and folktale. It gives some hints of trying, but it doesn’t go far enough. Rather, the location is used more scenically and to give DP Gatis Grinbergs even more of a chance to play with dappled light, something he does at every opportunity.

‘The Pit’ Review: A Heavy and Heavy-Handed Coming-of-Age Tale

Reviewed online, Dec. 2, 2021. Running time: 108 MIN. (Original title: ‘Bedre’)

  • Production: (Latvia) A Film Movement release (in U.S.) of a Marana Prods. production, with the support of the National Film Center of Latvia. (World sales: TVCO, Rome.) Producers: Kristele Pudane, Elina Zazerska, Klaus Heydemann.
  • Crew: Director: Dace Pūce. Screenplay: Dace Pūce, Monta Gagane, Pēteris Rozītis, based on three stories by Jana Egle from the short story collection “Into the Light.” Camera: Gatis Grinbergs. Editors: Jussi Rautaniemi, Antti Jääskelainen. Music: Valters Pūce.
  • With: Damirs Onackis, Agata Buzek, Egons Dombrovskis, Indra Burkovska, Inese Kucinska, Dace Eversa, Aigars Vilims, Luize Birkenberga.