Issue 50 (2015)
Andrei Zaitsev: 14+ (2015)
reviewed by Margarita Levantovskaya© 2015
Andrei Zaitsev’s feature film, 14+, opens boldly with a phantasmagoric montage of multicolored khrushchevkas, congested city streets and local trains. Aleksei Sulima’s rendition of Adriano Celentano’s classic, “Ciao Ragazzi,” blares over these images, making Moscow’s urban outskirts seem not at all depressing, but cheerful and full of hidden potential. This opening effectively establishes the film’s tone, which is nostalgic and idealistic, with hints of self-conscious irony. 14+ represents Zaitsev’s second attempt at a coming-of-age story. His previous feature, The Layabouts (Bezdel’niki, 2011), was loosely based on the life of Kino frontman Viktor Tsoi and focused on young rock stars’ experiences with love. 14+ tells the story of first love between two ordinary teens, Alesha and Vika, who come together despite belonging to rivaling schools. In this film, Zaitsev is interested in not only retelling the age-old tale of mismatched young lovers, but also commenting on how teens experience romantic love in the age of social networks. In addition, the film is about adolescent friendship and interactions between single mothers and their sons in contemporary Russia. Compared to such recent films as Emir Baigazin’s Harmony Lessons (Uroki garmonii, 2013) and Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy’s The Tribe (Plemya, 2014), 14+ presents a relatively wholesome and optimistic view of youth, putting forward a new “positive hero.” Unfortunately, in constructing this hero, Zaitsev leans too heavily on Western adolescent-comedy tropes, producing a film that rehashes the male fantasy of a nerdy boy who gets the beautiful girl.
One of the interesting features of 14+ is its relationship to the earlier Russian film about a fresh-faced and awkward youth, Aleksei Balabanov’s Brother (Brat 1997). Zaitsev creates this connection in the opening credits, placing the movie poster of Brother in the background of the shot. The poster belongs to Alesha, who loves the now classic film and looks up to its anti-hero, Danila Bagrov. Like Alesha, who idolizes Danila without imitating him, Zaitsev pays homage to Balabanov’s film without appropriating its detached tone and graphic violence. Similarly to Brother, 14+ features amateur actors who turn in naturalistic performances. While Balabanov took advantage of Sergei Bodrov Jr.’s appeal as an unseasoned actor, Zaitsev went as far as to find his leading actors (Gleb Kaliuzhnyi and Ul’iana Vaskovich) through the social networking site Vkontakte. Danila and Alesha are products of similar socio-economic circumstances, despite growing up in different eras. Both are young men who lack positive father figures, but who respond to this absence in strikingly different ways. Danila, a former soldier, is a socially awkward but frighteningly competent killer with a consistent but unconventional moral framework. Alesha acts out in much more typical, non-violent ways. He is non-threatening and capable of maintaining stable friendships, as well as making new friends, despite lacking social graces. While Danila doesn’t hesitate to use force against his enemies or to approach romantic interests, Alesha obsessively ponders his choices, avoiding confrontations with bullies and with the object of his crush. The question of whether Alesha will one day become “a Danila” hangs over the film, and Zaitsev raises it in playful ways, particularly at the end of the film. However, for the most part, 14+ makes clear that Brother is the gangster fantasy of this ordinary hero and not a blueprint for his behavior.
While it is refreshing to see an incorruptible young hero in a Russian film, it is also a shame that, as a character, Alesha lacks Danila’s enigma and unpredictability. Zaitsev’s hero and story follow too many of the conventions of coming-of-age dramas and adolescent comedies. In addition to having an absent father, Alesha is also unlucky enough to grow up with an overbearing but ineffectual mother. School fails to engage him, but that is only because his teachers are out of touch, abusive or even drunk on the job. The bullies from Vika’s school threaten his safety but he earns their respect with cleverness instead of violence. Alesha even manages to bring together the nerds and the “Queen Bees,” thus proving that cool girls would rather hang out with geeks than neighborhood bullies. Those who are familiar with such American films as Can't Buy Me Love (1987, dir. Steve Rash), Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982, dir. Amy Heckerling) or Superbad (2007, dir. Greg Mottola), will have no trouble predicting the plot of 14+. Zaitsev incorporates the tropes made famous by these American classics into a stylish and earnest film, but does not go so far as too subvert them.
Given the independent, arthouse-friendly character of 14+, which was included in the 2015 Berlinale, it is also useful to compare the film to such recent festival darlings as Richard Linklater’s Boyhood (2014) and Xavier Dolan’s Mommy (2014),which are also male coming-of-age stories. In fact, 14+ has some of the same problems as Boyhood, including the lack of diversity in its cast, marginal and stereotypical representations of women, and an abrupt, inconclusive ending. Both films also share the problem of low stakes, meaning that their characters quickly overcome life obstacles and deal with few consequences as a result of their actions. For example, Alesha’s actions lead to his friend being beaten up by the bullies, yet this does not create tension in their friendship. Furthermore, Alesha shakes off these bullies too quickly. These boys, who present themselves as skinheads and have control over Vika and her girlfriends, completely step out of Alesha’s way, allowing him to pursue the romance.
Still more problematic is the film’s treatment of its female characters. Similarly to Boyhood, as well as numerous other coming-of-age films that focus on male adolescents, 14+ features a mother figure who is emotionally immature and defined by her poor taste in men. Zaitsev treats Alesha’s mother instrumentally, using her to show the boy’s underprivileged position. She is also an object of humor because of her stereotypically Russian prudence and resistance to her son’s sexual education. By contrast, Dolan’s Mommy subverts such a conventional treatment of maternal figures by making his film more about the mother than about the male adolescent, thus decentering the “boyhood” perspective. To his credit, Zaitsev shows Alesha as genuinely invested in maintaining a stable relationship with his mother and being an obedient child. Still, in general, the director does not question perceptions and cinematic depictions of mothers or girls.
Whereas the mother, at least, experiences different emotional states, Vika remains a one-dimensional character throughout the film. Narratively, her function is to usher Alesha into manhood and visually, she is the object of the male gaze. This problem arises when the camera takes up Alesha’s perspective in order to show us how he views his first romantic interest. Zaitsev does not undermine this gaze by introducing Vika’s point of view, but invites viewers to share in Alesha’s visual pleasure. For example, in one of the film’s scenes, Alesha looks through the pictures on Vika’s Vkontakte profile. This sequence of photographs overtly sexualizes the character while also suggesting that she is the author of the images. However, what we see are not typical “selfies” but professional-level photographs that look like they would belong in a fashion or men’s magazine. While it is not surprising that a 14-year old woman would have pictures of herself in a bikini on her social networking site, it is troubling that Zaitsev includes idealized versions of such images and uses them gratuitously in the film. In another scene, Vika and Alesha steal away from their group of friends to share a private moment. Rather than showing us how the two youths see one another, Zaitsev’s camera slowly travels across Vika’s breasts, showing them in full close-up and then cutting to Alesha who looks at them in timid admiration. Even when we are not seeing Vika through Alesha’s eyes, she is still filtered through the gaze of the director. This is most obvious in a sequence where Zaitsev cross-cuts two scenes of Alesha and Vika getting ready for the date that will lead to their first sexual experience. Alesha frantically cleans up his room, while Vika lounges around in her underwear, putting on makeup and admiring herself in the mirror. Whereas his scene is comedic, hers feels voyeuristic because the camera once again lingers on her body, portraying her as Lolita-like.
The voyeurism of Vika’s scenes also characterizes Zaitsev’s larger approach to filming digital natives. 14+ explores how young love and friendship is mediated by new media and social networks – a situation that fills Zaitsev with ambivalence. His casting and visual choices reflect the importance of new media in understanding young people. Yet the director also takes the position of a critic and non-participant when discussing and portraying young people’s experience with new media. In an interview at the Berlinale, Zaitsev had the following to say about Vkontakte: “If you are not on this site, you are not in, you are a loser, you’re behind,” a situation he understandably finds to be problematic. Alesha is a member of this network, so he is not a complete loser, but he is also an endearing character, in part because he does not have the same kind of savvy as Vika, who expertly manipulates her online persona. Taking a more positive approach, Zaitsev also shows digital media as a tool for connecting introverted kids to their cool peers. Specifically, when Alesha’s group of male friends first gets together with Vika’s, they use their phones to create a series of silly films. Ironically a cover of the Radiohead song “Creep,” with its famous chorus, “But I’m a creep, I’m a weirdo, What the hell am I doing here? I don't belong here,” plays in the background. Here Zaitsev suggests the potential of digital technologies to help adolescents who feel like “losers” relate to one another. Zaitsev, however, muddles this message by including, at the end of the film, another sequence of stills, this time of random young people (not characters in the film), hanging out or partying. These images are supposed to look like photographs taken from their VKontakte profiles, and they resemble the photographs of Vika we saw earlier. In fact, many are sexualized images of teenage women, with some posing in their underwear, their lovers’ names written on their bodies. The song, “We are drunk” (“My p'ianye”), by the Ska group Gazon, plays over this montage. Once again Zaitsev represents youths as being the agents of their own objectification, while now also suggesting that these youths are not responsible agents (are “drunk”). The problem is that, in making this statement, the director does not acknowledge his exploitation of this kind of imagery in titillating audiences while presenting his tale of young love.
Music has an important narrative function in 14+, just as it did in The Layabouts. Interestingly, 14+ was initially supposed to feature a soundtrack dominated by Adriano Celentano, but Zaitsev abandoned this choice in favor of an eclectic mix of music, in different languages and by an international selection of pop stars. Given Zaitsev’s intentional approach to his soundtracks it is again worthwhile comparing 14+ to Boyhood and Mommy, as these films also use pop music in self-consciously playful ways. Boyhood uses diegetic music for the purpose of marking time, adding cultural flavor and making the viewer nostalgic at the sound of such tunes as Britney Spears’ “Oops I Did It Again” and Cat Power’s “Could We.” In contrast, Mommy primarily uses non-diegetic music to create juxtapositions between image and sound. For example, the film features such earnest and now “uncool” songs as Dido’s “White Flag,” Sarah McLachlan’s “Building a Mystery” and Counting Crows' “Colorblind,” all of which sound dissonant against the otherwise gritty and pessimistic tones of the film. 14+ falls somewhere in the middle, playing on nostalgia and irony with its mix of non-diegetic and diegetic music. During the Berlinale interview, Zaitsev claimed that he decided against using Celentano because that music was too specific to his generation and he wanted to include the kind of music that his characters would listen to. This may be true of some but not most of the songs in the film. For example, it is difficult to believe that a fourteen-year-old would listen to Serge Gainsbourg’s “Je t’aime, moi non plus” while surfing the internet, or that Mikhail Boiarskii’s “Zelenoglaznoe taksi” would be playing at a school dance and all of the students would be singing along. Even Radiohead’s “Creep,” which was released approximately eight years before the birth of the characters in the film, is an odd choice. Furthermore, the fact that the teens engage in their first sexual experience to the tune of “Zelenoglaznoe taksi” is simultaneously endearing and disturbing. The song has a special meaning for Alesha because it reminds him of his father and of his first dance with Vika. At the same time, while watching them recreate their dance to a song that has more meaning to someone of Zaitsev’s generation than the young characters, the viewer may feel like a witness to the director’s male fantasy.
14+ presents a story of first love that post-Soviet audiences are not used to seeing, at least not in festival-friendly films. Much more common are narratives where young men enter manhood through extreme and persistent experiences with violence. In Zaitsev’s film, the transition from boyhood into manhood is primarily about the discovery of romantic love and sexual experience. Packaged for international, arthouse audiences, the film has a sleek look but recycles many familiar elements of adolescent romantic dramedies. 14+ aims for a realistic vision, colored by the influence of modern technologies, but ultimately portrays first love not as it is but as it should be, at least according to a male perspective. As a result, the film suffers from some of the same gender problems that have long haunted this type of film as well as such genre-transcending films as Boyhood. After viewing a film like 14+, one hopes that Russian filmmakers not only continue to search for positive young heroes and experiment with coming-of-age narratives but also to challenge their conventions and give screen time to young women’s points of view.
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14+, Russia, 2015
Color, 102 minutes
Director: Andrei Zaitsev
Screenplay: Andrei Zaitsev
Cinematography: Kirill Bobrov and Shandor Berkeshi
Production Design: Ol’ga Khlebnikova
Editing: Andrei Zaitsev and Iuliia Batalova
Cast: Gleb Kaliuzhnyi, Ul’iana Vaskovich, and Ol’ga Ozollapinia
Producers: Ol’ga Granina and Andrei Zaitsev
Production Company: Sentiabr'
Andrei Zaitsev: 14+ (2015)
reviewed by Margarita Levantovskaya© 2015