Some 25 years later, with war brewing in Ukraine, the end of the Soviet Union still does not seem likely to usher in a golden age of new democracies any time soon. The breakaway republic of Georgia had problems from the start, with its first years of independence marked by a military coup, a dictatorship, a shattered economy, civil war, and conflicts with neighboring countries. Add a macho culture in which nobody objects to women being kidnapped in broad daylight, raped, and forced to marry, and the Georgian capital of Tbilisi in 1992 was not the best place for bright and attractive 14-year-old girls to come of age. In her semi-autobiographical debut feature, co-director (with her husband, Simon Gross) and screenwriter Nana Ekvtimshvili evokes the exuberance and anxiety of that time of life, framed by a world on the verge of chaos.
That chaos emerges obliquely, such as when a radio talk show host advises patriotic Georgians to arm themselves, or uniformed goons push their way to the front of a bread line. In general, though, best friends Eka and Natia (Lika Babluani and Mariam Bokeria, nonprofessional actors with impressive talent) are more preoccupied with the usual adolescent problems of family, peers, school, and sex. Eka lives with her aloof mother and her older, vapid sister. Her father’s absence is not immediately explained (the narrative is subtle and elliptical), though her mother keeps a box of artifacts – letters, a passport, and a pack of cigarettes – on her bureau. Natia, on the other hand, lives in turmoil – her mother hates her father, her father is an abusive drunk, her younger brother wants to kill the father, and the grandmother shrieks at everyone.
When they are together, however, Eka and Natia seem indomitable. They face down male bullies and nasty teachers and get incensed at injustice. Disgusted with the complacency of other girls their age when it comes to sexist abuse, they stick up for women’s rights. But Natia, the prettiest girl in school, faces extra challenges. The neighborhood thug wants to marry her, and the boy she loves, off to visit his uncle in Moscow for reasons unknown, gives her a parting gift – a handgun.
As Chekhov noted, a loaded firearm is one of the hoariest conventions in drama, but “In Bloom” for the most part defies conventions. Some credit for this is due to the cinematography of Oleg Mutu (who shot Cristian Mungiu’s “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days,” among others), which details urban decay and social tension with a palette dominated by grays, blacks, and viridian shades, lending the film the somber texture of new wave Romanian realism. But despite the seeming inevitability of tragedy and despair, “In Bloom” remains true to its title. Though political and personal upheaval threatens to overwhelm them, Eka and Natia’s clarity and courage resist the ignorance, injustice, and rage all around.