Wednesday, January 01, 2014

PSIFF ’14: Mother, I Love You

Quality musical instruments are expensive, even for middle class professionals in Riga. That is one reason Raimonds Krasts is reluctant to tell his perennially stressed out OBGYN mother he lost his saxophone, particularly since it happened during a bit of misdemeanor mischief. Each lie and evasion only makes matters worse for Krasts in Jānis Nords’ Mother, I Love You (trailer here), a Dostoyevskian middle school morality play that screens as part of the 2014 Palm Springs International Film Festival’s focus on official Academy Award submissions for best foreign language film.

There is already tension between Krasts and his single mother, Silvia Krasta. She has been secretly dating a colleague while supposedly working the late shift.  Frankly, it is unclear how Krasts feels about this, but there is no question Krasta is displeased with his behavioral issues at school. She is also none too thrilled about his friend from the wrong side of the tracks, Peteris Cepurnieks.  The son of a cleaning lady, Cepurnieks has swiped his mother’s key to a dodgy playboy’s often vacant apartment, where they often hang out and steal pocket money. 

When things get particularly heated at home, Krasts runs off to the bachelor pad, but cuts short his stay when the owner arrives with a prostitute.  Unfortunately, the woman in question filches his saxophone along with several other portable items from the flat.  Predictably his attempts to retrieve it lead to even more serious problems, because Krasts is still just a kid—one with particularly bad judgment.

Even though MILY did not make the Academy’s nine film short list, it was smart choice for Latvia.  As the winner of the Jury Award at this year’s LA Film Festival, it would have had more credibility and perhaps recognition among left coast Academy members than the average submission.  Nords’ brand of sensitive naturalism is also perfectly compatible with Academy tastes and preferences.  Evidently, it was not to be, but it is still an accomplished film. The work of cinematographer Tobias Datum is particularly noteworthy for the way it captures the moody elegance and loneliness of late night Riga.

Front-and-center throughout the film, thirteen year old lead-actor Kristofers Konovalovs holds up to the scrutiny remarkably well.  As problematic as Krasts might be, he never comes across as a caricature.  Instead, we can understand why he makes each compounding mistake.  Never overly showy, he could teach a thing or two to some of this year’s supposed Oscar contenders. 

Likewise, the performance of Vita Varpina (one of two established screen actors in MILY) is smartly balanced and acutely believable. Haralds Barzdins, the real life conductor for the Latvian Song and Dance Festival adds some color as Krasts’ band director, but it is debatable whether the film will do much to spur youthful enthusiasm for orchestral music.

There is indeed a lot of messy humanity in MILY.  Everyone makes mistakes, but nobody is irredeemable.  It should be interesting for festival patrons to watch the film in close dialogue with Kang Yi-kwan’s somewhat thematically related Juvenile Offender.  Nords never takes the easy way out, yet his film is still considerably more optimistic.  Small but potent, Mother, I Love You is recommended for those who appreciate coming-of-age character studies.  It screens this coming Sunday (1/5), Monday (1/6), and the following Saturday (1/11) during the 2014 Palm Springs International Film Festival.