Issue 54 (2016)

Oksana Karas: Good Boy (Khoroshii mal'chik, 2016)

reviewed by Lilya Nemchenko© 2016

Six Days in the Life of Kolia Smirnov, or the Comedy of Growing Up

good boyKolia Smirnov, the hero of Oksana Karas’s film Good Boy, is a ninth-grade pupil at an average Moscow school. He comes from an intact and close-knit family (unlike the equally “good boys” from Andrei Zaitsev’s film 14+), does well in all subjects, has independently taken on Japanese classes, and knows that arsenic is a half-metal. Semen Treskunov, who plays the role, is almost the same age as his hero, which makes his performance authentic, especially through the recognizable plasticity typical of a teenager, through precise emotional reactions and maximalist judgments. Yet by the directpr's will Treskunov’s character inherits the traditions of a special type of teenager from Soviet cinema: a person who differs from his contemporaries through a different view, his own opinion and a capacity for desperate acts. His name refers to the cult film by Aleksandr Mitta, My Friend Kol'ka (Drug moi, Kol'ka!, 1961); and just like Kol'ka Snegirev, Kolia expects people to be sincere and longs for truth. Kolia Smirnov could also appear in the place of the pupil Genka Shestopal from We’ll live till Monday by Stanislav Rostotskii (Dozhivem do ponedel’nika, 1968), the silent guy who unexpectedly burns his school essays. But if these predecessors performed non-conformist acts requiring civil courage, Smirnov intuitively knows only the probability theory, i.e. he is able to guess on which side a coin will fall, heads or tails. There is another difference between this Kolia and his predecessors, which has to do with genre conventions: Mitta’s and Rostotskii’s characters were dramatic heroes, while Kolia is comic hero, and this comedy is constructed along the lines of a fairy-tale narration. According to these rules, the good will overcome the bad, even if there is practically no evil in the film, except for the poor street mugger Bagdasar, “lowered” down to the mythological and real figure of Pisun (literally, “the pisser”). Those who want to get married, others won’t file a divorce, and the stolen computers are returned to the school; everyone unites in a festive dance in the finale.

good boyThe happy ending comes from the conventions of the fairy-tale genre, but at the same time it also belongs to comedy and to mass culture. Karas’s movie maneuvers between these forms, and the brilliant script byf Mikhail Mestetskii and Roman Kantor sometimes conflicts with the requirements of a smooth, lovely, mass-culture piece. It seems that the text is constrained by the distilled space of a neat Moscow, on the river bank, where the city appears free from its nervous pulse, traffic jams and migrant workers, and where the heroes exist quite comfortably in a fairy-tale time-capsule, which knows no politics, economics and social inequality. Even Kolia’s initiationand the movie is about the maturation of a “good boy”takes place without humiliation, fear and pain. On the whole, the laws of fairy-tale and comedy genres do not deny the existence of a social context; moreover, comedy possesses a powerful informative and critical potential, because it assumes the mode of “familiar proximity,” but this opportunity is not used by the filmmakers. An exception is the Director of Studies (Tat’iana Dogileva), with her recognizable figure, manners and intonations: “You’re in Russia, Dronova,” she reminds the beautiful tenth-grader Ksiusha (Kseniia), when the girl performs a Jamaican dance. This episode is almost the only one that concisely defines the place of action. The threats from the Director of Studies to hold tests in Biology, Chemistry and Basic Everyday Safety (OBZh, Osnovy bezopasnosti zhiznedeiatel'nosti, a subject in schools) for all those who miss the dance rehearsal in preparation for the School Day are ridiculous, therefore funny, as are the examples of heroism she cites from her own life: “I used to dance in the agitational brigade when nine months pregnant! I gave birth, and I danced!”

good boyThe schooland Good Boy falls into genre of the school filmhas always served as a microcosm for society, with its division into conservatives and liberals. We find this in Rostotskii’s We’ll live till Monday, and in Boris Frumin's Diary of a School Director (Dnevnik direktora shkoly, 1975). In the latter, the liberal school director Sveshnikov (Oleg Borisov) defends the ninth-grader Igor' Kol’tsov against the conservative Director of Studies Valentina Fedorovna (Iia Savvina). In Good Boy there is also a liberal headmaster Dronov (Mikhail Efremov) and a conservative Director of Studies (Dogileva), who will not allow the children to independently rehearse a dance performance. The free, relaxed, hip-hop, dancehall-style, with all its variety and whirlwind of movement (in the episodes with the dances the inventive work of the camerawoman Siusanna Musaeva is noteworthy) contrasts with the frozen look of the Director of Studies who restrains the children. She has chosen a music tape with a Polka, the national Slav dance, for the dance rehearsal for the School Day. The genre of comedy obviously does not require a conflict; therefore both the conservative and the liberal sides are only sketched vaguely. While the Director of Studies is static and monumental, the headmaster is always in motion: throughout the film he whizzes from the school to a date, then rushes home, then drives off to an illegal casino, then again goes back home, etc. In terms of the evolution of the concept of the headmaster, the filmmakers have acted rather bravely: continuing with the tradition of the tired but understanding headmaster who is bound by rules and regulations (Sveshnikov in Diary), the screenwriters turn Dronov into a compulsive gambler. Mikhail Efremov’s trademark charm justifies his illegal actions (and I expect indignation from the teaching profession, who won’t differentiate between facts of life and the artistic truth when the film will be released). Dronov’s energy and his charisma are based on the passion of a gambler, and where there is game and improvisation, accidents, failures and successes are also possible. This is fully fledged life, life in its aesthetic equivalent, when the functional, unilateral, pragmatic aspects give way to universal, spiritual omnipotence. And Dronov loves the school, the pupils, his daughter, the English teacher Alice, another woman, another daughter, his wife, the game… Variety is the credo of Efremov’s character.

good boyAnother traditional motif of the school film is the seductive teacher; in Soviet movies these are usually the foreign language teachers, while here it is the English teacher Alice Denisovna (the Lithuanian actress Ieva Andrejevaite), who is worshipped by the informatics teacher Stanislav Il’ich (Aleksandr Pal'), the principal Dronov (Efremov) and Kolia.

Six days is the time of creation in symbolical terms, while in household terms it is the routine working week; in the case of 15-year-old Kolia this is the period of compressed experiences of human knowledge. The time of love, first for the English teacher, then the headmaster’s daughter Ksiusha Dronova; the time of discoveries of the difficulties and contradictions of adult life; the time of exposures, of the wisdom of understanding, including the father, which is very important for the boy; and the time of overcoming his youthful maximalism.

good boyThe teenage school film, as a rule, functions like the Bildungsroman, but Good Boy is less a novel than a comic book, dealing in a concentrated manner with the main collisions of teenage self-determination. In Karas’s optimistic film everything is and will be fine with the teenager Kolia, who has different strategies of life before him: playful, from the director; and non-conformist, from the father (Khabenskii). By the authors’ will, the antagonists Dronov and Smirnov Sr. aren’t just acquainted, but they went to school together. Dronov is a source of vivacity and abundance of love, while Kolia’s father is a bzdanagoga (Smirnov’s school nickname, signaling that he’s out of this world). The fullness of life on the border of legality is reflected in Dronov’s morals, set against the self-restrictions, the asceticism (to the point of absurdity) of Smirnov Sr. (the pater familias seriously moves the family to a mode of existence on 12/36 because one must live not by the rhythm of the Sun, but of Space, thereby learning to be independent)the smiling and extrovert Efremov and the strict, gloomy Khabenskii. Their acting duet is magnificent in the range of shades and intonations, in the accuracy of details and authenticity, and their organic existence in the most absurd situations.

The appearance of an optimistic comedy with fine, witty dialogues makes pleasant viewing, also through the skill of idealization, the main kind of artistic generalization chosen by the director, but this approach also sets a trap. For some reason in Russian cinema there are only polar views: School by Valeriia Gai Germanika, with its austere documentarism, and the neat and sterile Good Boy. Yet as we know well: sterility also kills useful microbes.

Lilya Nemchenko
Ural Federal University, Ekaterinburg

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Good Boy, Russia, 2016
95 min., color, 1:2.39, PSM
Director Oksana Karas
Scriptwriters Mikhail Mestetskii, Roman Kantor, with participation from Oksana Karas
DoP Siuzanna Musaeva
Production Design Timofei Riabushinskii
Music Mikhail Morskov, Artem Fedotov, Group NEOPOLEON
Editing Vladimir Voronin, Oksana Karas, Vasilii Solov’ev
Cast: Semen Treskunov, Konstantin Khabenskii, Mikhail Efremov, Ieva Andrejevaite, Anastasia Bogatyryova, Aleksandr Pal, Tat’iana Dogileva, Irina Pegova, Irina Denisova, Andrei Karasevich, Oleg Sokolov
Producers Vasilii Solov’ev, Iurii Khrapov, Anna Peskova, Dmitrii Rudovskii
Production 2D Celluloid, Art Pictures Studio
Distribution (RF) WDSSPR

Oksana Karas: Good Boy (Khoroshii mal'chik, 2016)

reviewed by Lilya Nemchenko© 2016