Firm messages about female liberty and self-determination are delivered with a gentle touch in “Yuni,” a compassionate and engaging coming-of-age tale about a 16-year-old schoolgirl who doesn’t know exactly what she wants to do with her life but does know that she’s not ready to follow tradition and become a teenage bride. The third feature directed solo by Kamila Andini (“The Seen and Unseen”) tackles topics that need to be discussed and further enhances her standing as a vital and intelligent voice in contemporary Indonesian cinema. “Yuni” is sure to travel widely at festivals and has what it takes to become a domestic commercial success that entertains audiences and gets them talking about the pertinent issues it raises.
The great strength of “Yuni” lies in its simple construction and the manner in which it approaches sensitive subjects such as teenage sex and arranged marriage in a Muslim society. The screenplay by Andini and Prima Rusdi doesn’t shy away from anything, but at the same time it never has to stand on a soapbox to get its progressive and persuasive messages across.
A clever girl with an obsession for all things purple (the color associated with power, wisdom and spirituality), Yuni (Arawinda Kirana, excellent) attends a high school that’s planning to implement mandatory virginity testing for all female students and has banned music on grounds that it does not comply with Islamic teachings. But freedom from such rules and restrictions is on the horizon for Yuni. Provided her grades remain high and she does not get married, she will qualify for a highly prized college scholarship.
Studying isn’t the problem. Avoiding matrimony is where the challenge lies. With both parents working in far-away Jakarta, Yuni lives with her grandmother (Nazla Thoyib), a kind-hearted but tradition-minded woman who tells Yuni that marriage is a blessing and “we shouldn’t refuse a blessing.” Flying in the face of an age-old myth that says rejecting two marriage proposals will make it practically impossible to ever find a husband, Yuni does just that. First to be rebuffed is construction worker Iman (Muhammad Khan), followed by Mang Dodi (Toto St. Radik), a married man at least three times Yuni’s age who’s prepared to pay a $3,500 dowry to secure a second wife.
Andini balances Yuni’s mounting frustration with the narrow gender role she’s being pressured to adopt with scenes of her embracing life as a teenager who’s free to speak her mind and make her own decisions. Some of the film’s most delightful and illuminating scenes involve Yuni, her chatterbox bestie Sarah (Neneng Risma) and their pals lolling around on the grass and talking candidly about boys, crushes, sex, orgasms and the especially giggle-worthy topic of intimate self-pleasure. The same joyful spirit of solidarity imbues Yuni’s friendship with Suci (Asmara Abigail), a happily divorced beautician with an uninhibited zest for life.
When not batting away marriage proposals from suitors she barely knows, Yuni is free to daydream about her secret crush on handsome literature teacher Mr. Damar (Dimas Aditya). Yuni’s a whizz as math and science but is struggling with the assignment set by Damar. Her task is to analyze “Rain in June,” a magnificent, metaphorical love poem by revered master Sapardi Djoko Damono. (In production notes, Andini cites this work as the film’s inspiration and has dedicated “Yuni” to Domono’s memory.)
In a turn of events that brings poetry to the film in both form and content, Yuni is given a helping hand by Yoga (Kevin Ardilova), a fellow student who’s younger than her and has a sensitive appreciation of the work. The lad also has a crush on Yuni that’s of the all-consuming and utterly paralyzing magnitude that only teenage years can produce. Though Yoga’s stumbling, bumbling and general nervousness has a slightly flattening effect on some small sections of the drama, things pick up nicely as their one-way relationship blooms into something much more significant and life-changing for both.
Filmed and performed with an unfussy and convincing naturalism, “Yuni” has the feel of a documentary that sets out to explore the life of a typical Indonesian girl caught up in the excitement, confusion and trepidation that is universally experienced by adolescents. To its great credit, the film never seeks out villains or points accusing fingers at anyone. The heart of the matter here is that adulthood and life-shaping events are thrust upon girls such as Yuni far too quickly and there needs to be more time for young women like her to breathe the air, survey the landscape and decide in which direction they would like to travel.