Issue 68 (2020)

Oksana Karas: High Above (Vyshe neba, 2019)

reviewed by Emily Schuckman Matthews © 2020

vyshe nebaOksana Karas’s latest feature film, High Above, is a film that takes on too much and falls short of achieving its full potential. While at its best, the film offers a beautiful and poignant snapshot of youth, coming of age and first experiences with sex and summer flings, the inclusion of numerous other plotlines leaves the film unfocused. Multi-directional side plots including a murder mystery, an attempted rape, and an enigmatic boyfriend are underdeveloped, poorly executed, and ultimately create a muddled film. 

vyshe nebaThe primary narrative of the film is a study of the unraveling of a seemingly ideal family as secrets and passions are unleashed during their annual summer visit to a sanatorium outside of Moscow. The first plotline tracks the collapse of what initially appears to be a happy marriage between Gennady and Larisa (played by real-life husband and wife Aleksei Agranovich and Viktoria Tolstoganova). The audience gradually learns of Gennady’s past and current infidelities, Larisa’s resulting insecurity and a deeply held secret related to their daughter Sasha’s heart condition. Another plotline tracks the teenage daughters as they explore their youthful eroticism and summer freedom. The two young women, along with their cohort of annual summer visitors, spend their time discussing boys, their bodies, their desires and actively pursuing love interests. These two narratives become entangled with others that cast the mother as overly protective to 18-year-old Sasha, coddling her and forcing her to wear rubber boots to stave off illness due to her lifelong heart condition. A plot twist later reveals that the mother manufactured the daughter’s condition (and forced her to live as an invalid) in order to keep her husband from abandoning the family after he had an affair when the children were young. The father is indeed shown to have a wandering eye as he fawns over Rita, his children’s nubile friend, and ultimately has sex with her.

vyshe nebaWhile the unravelling of the parent’s marriage and revealing of the mother’s unforgivable foray into Munchausen by proxy should offer plenty of tension to the family drama, Karas does not allow much tension to build and, once revealed, the secrets seem to fall flat, sucked into a flatness of emotion that pervades the film. Most effective is the “will they or won’t they” flirtation between Gennady and Rita, but when they finally do, it is in the darkness of the night woods and both move on as if nothing happened—any tension evaporating immediately.  Even the reveal that Sasha has been the victim of her mother’s desire to forever have a sweet, “little sick baby,” there is a sort of predictability that had been built into the film.

vyshe nebaMost effective in the film is the beautiful, bucolic scenery of the Russian countryside with its lush greens, inviting waterways, and picturesque dachas. The romantic backdrop serves the narrative of youthful exploration of love and sex well. Sasha, her older sister Nina, and Rita frolic in wildflowers, strip to their underwear or less to explore and expose their recently developed, nubile bodies. As Efim Gugnin notes in his review, the film masterfully captures contemporary Russian youth with its portrayal of the young women blending talk about Ivan Kupala and Drake’s hip-hop, using cell phones against the backdrop of the Russian pastoral, complete with wildflower crowns, cell phones, and Soviet-era sanatoriums (Gugnin 2019). Karas oddly interrupts this idyll with a brief, but jarring scene in which a band of men stumbles upon the wreath-clad girls, one of them chasing Sasha into the dark forest and nearly raping her. The young and slightly mysterious Misha rescues her, his heroism serving as a catalyst for their love affair. Other than somehow bringing Misha and Sasha together, something easily accomplished in other ways, the inclusion of toxic male aggression is completely out of place in the film and appears so briefly, as if to just check that box on the list of potential narrative plot twists that might happen to young women in a melodrama. Including the scene is not only unnecessary, but feels manipulative and trite.

vyshe nebaThe innocent and emerging love affair between Sasha and Misha offers the most fully developed plot arc. Misha, whose father was recently found floating dead in the river, is a quiet and pensive young man, enamored with Sasha and committed to liberating her from her invalid status. He fulfills her dream of stringing up a tree the rubber boots her mother has forced her to wear since childhood to ward off illness. He convinces her to sneak out at night to watch him paraglide, inspiring her with the freedom portrayed in flying above the clouds. For her part, Sasha’s desire to be with Misha supersedes her indoctrination to obey her mother and she relishes the loss of the boots, swimming in the river despite her mother’s warnings, and ultimately connecting so deeply with Misha that he reveals to her that his father was horribly abusive and that he may be responsible for his death. To conceal his crime, the once timid Sasha grabs a knife and threatens the sanatorium guard into giving her the security camera footage that captured the fight Misha and his father had before the father’s death. In yet another big reveal plot twist that falls short, Misha discovers, after turning himself into police, that his father died of a heart attack while intoxicated and that he is off the hook – told by the affable officer to go and live life while he’s young.

The film ends with the parent’s marriage permanently broken (Gennadii boards a bus back to Moscow while Larisa curls in the fetal position in the forest), but with Nina, somehow blissfully unaware of any of the drama, playing music with her girlfriends. Meanwhile, Sasha and Misha double-paraglide above it all. This banal ending fits well the tone and plot trajectory of the film which itself has operated primarily above it all, including any real depth of emotion or exploration of the human condition.

Emily Schuckman Matthews
San Diego State University

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Works Cited

Gugnin, Efim, 2019. “Otchego zh tak v Rossii podrostki shumiat,” 25 June.

High Above, Russia, 2019
Color, 104 minutes
Director: Oksana Karas
Screenplay: Ekaterina Mavromatis
Cinematography: Sergei Machilskii
Production Design Ul’iana Riabova
Music Marina Sobianina, Artem Fedotov, Mikhail Morskov
Editors: Oksana Karas, Vladimir Voronin
Cast: Aleksei Agranovich, Filipp Avdeev, Irina Denisova, Viktoria Tolstoganova, Taisiia Vilkova, Polina Vitogran, Dar’ia Zhovner
Producers Ruben Dishdishian, Nikolai Larionov
Production Film Company Mars Media, with support from the Ministry of Culture of the Russian Federation
Distribution (RF) Film Company VOLGA

Oksana Karas: High Above (Vyshe neba, 2019)

reviewed by Emily Schuckman Matthews © 2020

Updated: 2020