Issue 74 (2021)

Aleksandr Molochnikov: Tell Her (Skazhi ei, 2020)

reviewed by Rachel Stauffer © 2021

skazhi ej Aleksandr Molochnikov’s recently released film, Tell Her (Skazhi ei, 2021), depicts the emotional and frustrating circumstances imposed upon 11-year-old Sasha, played by Kai Alex Getz. Sasha’s mother ends her relationship with his father, Artem, in front of Sasha one morning at breakfast because she has met an American man, Michael, played by Austrian actor Wolfgang Cerny. Sasha’s father, Artem, is brilliantly played by Artem Bystrov, acclaimed for his role as the title character in Bykov’s The Fool (Durak, 2014). Throughout Tell Her, Artem’s relationship with Sasha feels genuinely close, owing to the artistry of both Bystrov and Getz, and their closeness is one of many sources of Sveta’s discontents, as it is clear from the outset of the film that she wishes Sasha felt the same closeness with her. All the same, Sveta is determined to take Sasha with her to America, though Artem would remain in Russia, effectively separating him and Sasha for the foreseeable future. Artem and Sveta determine that Sasha is old enough to make his own decision about where and with whom he wants to live. For anyone (including this reviewer) whose parents had separate households as a result of divorce, Sasha’s anguish hits close to home. Likewise, Sasha witnesses the many highs and lows Artem and Sveta experience, as they try, begrudgingly and fruitlessly, to co-parent. Sasha’s helplessness plays out repeatedly in the film as he struggles not only to choose between his mom and his dad, but also between Russia and America, between conformity and rebellion, and between following his heart, as opposed to pleasing others.

skazhi ejThe film has two clear sections, both taking place in the late 1990s, in different settings. The first section is in Russia, and the second, in the United States. At the outset of the film in St. Petersburg, the mise-en-scène reveals the time period with cassette tapes, music, Walkmans, video game consoles, and early model Apple iMac desktop and laptop computers (produced from the late 1990s to the early 2000s). Artem’s meager math teacher salary, Sveta’s eagerness to leave Russia for the United States, and their shared, crumbling Soviet-era apartment all point to the economic devastation of late-1990s Russia as well. While Artem and Sasha seem mostly unbothered by their station in life, the family’s financial limitations are clearly burdensome to Sveta, as well as what she perceives in Artem as a lack of ambition to improve their circumstances. After Sveta unceremoniously leaves Artem, the film centers on imagery of St. Petersburg’s bridges and waterways. Bridges are particularly symbolic throughout the first half of the film. Every time Sasha leaves one parent to return to the other, the exchange requires Sasha to walk across a bridge from one to the other. Sasha, who is stuck in the middle, is the only thing, like a bridge, that connects them. Sasha does not ever explicitly decide to move to the United States, but after a medical emergency in which Sasha becomes gravely ill due to the stress of his parents’ conflict, Sveta and Artem find a rare moment of reconciliation with one another in which Artem agrees to allow Sasha to go to the US with Sveta and Michael for one year. 

skazhi ejThat takes us to the second half of the film, in the United States, which is presented as an idealized California fantasy land. Molochnikov features iconic scenes of Americana, like Michael, Sveta, and Sasha riding in a red convertible along the California coast; an amusement park with games and roller coasters; American flags on every surface; children singing the National Anthem before school, playing basketball and (American) football, and eating peanut butter sandwiches. [skazhiej3] Sasha even participates in democracy at his school, running for and winning the election for class president. In the second half of the film, Artem is noticeably and painfully absent, except in glimpses of phone calls and emails, as we see daily life in California mostly through Sasha’s eyes. While Sasha experiences a honeymoon phase upon arrival in the United States, things take a turn when he is rejected by a girl, Georgia, after pulling a stunt to get free pizzas, which he explains to Georgia as a khalyava, a concept that does not translate well. Sasha’s prank is perceived as an egregious ethical overstep by Georgia’s mother, who confronts Sveta about Sasha’s behavior, saying “This is a different country, we have different rules”. Confused and angry, Sasha starts to socialize with a different group of classmates, learning how to skateboard, staying out late, and growing more rebellious. As his behavior becomes increasingly non-compliant, Sasha explodes at a US-born classmate, yelling “Too bad your rich dad can’t get you a better brain”, to which the classmate replies, “Too bad your poor dad can’t get a ticket to visit his son”. Predictably, the two boys get into a physical fight and in trouble at school, to which a classmate of Sasha’s responds by telling him that he could be deported back to Russia if he gets into too much trouble. When Sasha learns this, he seeks even more trouble, in the hopes of being deported. After several volatile incidents, including Sasha falsely reporting Michael to the police for child abuse and setting Michael’s car on fire, Sasha finally makes the decision to be with Artem in Russia.  

skazhi ejIn interviews, Molochnikov has been asked about similarities between the film’s subject matter and his own biography, which includes living in Los Angeles under similar circumstances as a child. However, Molochnikov has consistently maintained that Sasha’s story is not his own: “There are a few moments that directed me toward this story, but no more than that. It is not a biopic, and it is rather indirectly related to me” (Gorshkova 2021). The tension Sasha experiences between Russian and American culture is a special feature and a strength of this film. Its two sections complement one another, while also illuminating legitimate cultural dilemmas of both settings. The more time that Sasha spends in the United States, and the longer he is distanced from Artem, the more patriotic he becomes about Russia. In school, Sasha argues with his classmates about the superiority of the Soviet Union in the Cold War space race and claims that students in Russian schools are far more advanced than his US counterparts. In California, Sveta and Sasha learn ten new English words each day, and the longer he is separated from his father, Sasha’s vocabulary words evolve from wanting to learn more positive, iconic American terms, like vybory (elections) and svoboda (liberty), to seeking the English equivalents for Russian words like rodina (motherland) and stradat’ (suffer). Although physically separated, there are several montages of Artem and Sasha riding their bikes around their respective cities at the same time, symbolizing their strong bond, even at a distance. As a mother, Sveta tries to support Sasha, but she is also selfish in her persistence to start a new life in California, and, more importantly, to abandon her old one, something that comes through in a variety of subtle ways throughout Tell Her. It is her rejection and resistance to Artem, especially, that creates the title of the film, as Artem routinely tells Sasha to direct his complaints to his mother, saying “tell her.” The title also points to the film’s resolution when Sasha finally gains the courage to tell Sveta he wants to return to Russia and live with Artem.

Molochnikov’s direction and the exceptional performances by Getz, Bystrov, and Khodchenkova are reason enough to watch Tell Her. The contrasting settings and the 1990s timeframe are unique among recent films in Russian cinema and offer a compelling, though subtle, comparison of life in Russia versus life in a highly idealized US, through Sasha’s eyes. While this reviewer noticed some aspects of the film that seemed detached from the realities of migration (for example, Sasha’s instantaneous and seamless acculturation to English-only school settings, both socially and academically), such instances are infrequent. The idealized and quasi-nationalistic depiction of US cultural norms is interesting, if a bit much [somewhat excessive?], but could lead to a fascinating classroom discussion about the US and Russia. Generally, Tell Her is a most intriguing story and a beautiful film from a director who, at only 33, has already made an impact as an actor and director in theatrical productions. With this film, he demonstrates similar potential to play an important role in Russian cinema.

Rachel Stauffer
University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign

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Works Cited

Gorshkova, Julia. 2021. “Aleksandr Molochnikov - o novom fil’me, otnoshenijakh so Svetlanoj Khodchenkovoj, uchebe v Los Anzhelese i balete”. Tatler 13 May.

Tell Her, Russia, 2020
Color, 98 minutes
Director: Aleksandr Molochnikov
Scriptwriters: Aleksandr Molochnikov, Il’ia Tilkin, Aleksandr Talal
DoP: Janis Eglitis
Production Design: Alisa Solov’eva
Costume Design: Maria Shvachkina
Cast: Kai Getz, Artem Bystrov, Svetlana Khodchenkova
Producers: Aleksandr Tsekalo, Ivan Samokhvalov, Aleksandra Remizova
Production: Sreda (Russia), Bad Decisions (US)

Aleksandr Molochnikov: Tell Her (Skazhi ei, 2020)

reviewed by Rachel Stauffer © 2021

Updated: 2021