Tuesday, July 25, 2023

Fantasia ’23: Stay Online

During times of war, a good internet connection can pass on valuable intelligence and document war crimes for the world to see. Katya had something like the latter in mind when she volunteered her tech savviness to the cause of Ukraine’s defense, but she becomes determined to reunite the former owner of her used laptop with his young son in Yelna Strelnikova’s Stay Online which world-premiered at the 2023 Fantasia International Film Festival.

Apparently, there is still some life in the “Screenlife” concept of films like Timur Bekmambetov’s
Profile and Aneesh Chaganty’s Searching. The minimal set requirements helped facilitate the film’s production—billed as the first feature initiated and completed since Putin invaded. Putin also supplied the realistic war conditions seen throughout the film.

Katya is struggling to find a suitable way to respond to the war raging around her. Her brother Vitya is an armed volunteer with the defense forces, while her American friend Ryan does humanitarian work in the field. They each want Katya join their respective efforts, but she would rather share demoralizing information on KIA Russian soldiers with their uninformed loved ones back in Russian.

She also does some IT kind of work for Vitya’s unit, installing GPS tracking software on donated laptops. Much to her surprise, she gets a Telegram message from Sava, the young son of the laptop she is now working on. With the help of Vitya and Ryan, she tries to track down his missing parents.

Viewers need to steel themselves, because Strelnikova’s depiction of war is tragically realistic. Bad things happen to good people, early and often. Arguably,
Stay Online is the most believable Screenlife movie yet, because a happy ending is never guaranteed. It is also the most immersive Screenlife film, embedding viewers into the war-zone, through FaceTime footage and the like, which is how we have grown accustomed to witnessing combat.

According to IMDb,
Stay Online is Liza Zaitseva’s only screen credit to date, but she is devastatingly convincing as Katya. It might have been partly a case of involuntary method acting, given the war literally erupting around her. Yet, she also expresses Katya’s grief and pain with visceral power. Viewers who do not share her feelings must be dead inside.

Zaitseva is the clear, catalyzing protagonist and moral center of the film. Nevertheless, Oleksandr Rudynskyi (seen in Oleg Sentsov’s
Rhino) and Anton Skrypets are pitch-perfect as Vitya and Ryan. It is particularly impressive how smoothly Skrypets passes for American.

Stay Online
is a profoundly sad and angry film—obviously for good reasons. It maybe offers a sliver of hope, but boy, does it make the audience work for it. Welcome to the day-to-day realities of Ukraine. As a fictional narrative (very definitely grounded in tragic fact), Stay Online expresses that boots-on-the-ground reality better than most documentaries, the most notable exception probably being the overwhelming 20 Days Mariupol. Like Mstslav Chernov’s doc, Stay Online will leave a mark on your soul.  Very highly recommended, Strelnikova’s film world-premiered at this year’s Slamdance.