When a gun lands in the hands of a defiant 14-year-old, a bleak drama suddenly turns into a stomach-churning suspense film. Every moment seems like it could lead Natia to pull the trigger, whether she’s being stalked by a young man trying to force her into marriage or dealing with the hateful bully who terrorizes her best friend’s walk home from school.
The deadly weapon is usually out of sight, but it’s never far from mind during “In Bloom.” The object charges even the most banal moments as the two girls come of age in Tbilisi, Georgia, during the early 1990s.
“In Bloom” has won prizes at festivals around the world, and the film was Georgia’s submission in the foreign language category at this year’s Academy Awards. It didn’t make the final cut, but it was a worthy contender, even with two first-time actresses in starring roles. Lika Babluani and Mariam Bokeria are captivating as Eka and Natia, girls who sit next to each other in class, gallivant together after school and stick up for each other when they can.
Each girl has her own troubles at home. Natia’s father is an alcoholic, and his drinking inevitably leads to screaming arguments with her mother, where insults and broken glass fly. Eka’s father, meanwhile, is in prison, possibly for murder, although the girl’s mother won’t disclose the full story.
Life outside the house proves even less comforting. The two are tasked with navigating a suffocating cluster of a bread line, and their teacher is a tyrannical nightmare. Even the story’s most gentle narrative thread — Natia’s fledgling relationship with a boy named Kopla (Giorgi Aladashvili) — has an ominous feel. He’s the one who gives her the gun, just before he departs for Moscow. His timing couldn’t be worse, as the sinister Kote (Zurab Gogaladze) is set on turning Natia into a child bride. (Bridal kidnapping has been a persistent problem in countries around the world, including many former Soviet republics.)
The whole unsettling scenario mirrors the state of Georgia at the time. The country was in the midst of civil war, and although no battles are fought where the girls live, reminders are everywhere, from talk of boys taking up arms and leaving town to radio dispatches about bombings in Sukhumi. Later, that city would be the sight of a horrifying massacre, and the reality of what’s to come hangs over the movie. Violence is inescapable.
There is an obliqueness to “In Bloom.” Writer Nana Ekvtimishvili, who directed the movie with Simon Gross, doesn’t spell things out, and the complete story never comes into focus. That sense also is reflected in the way the movie is shot. In a scene where Eka is dancing during a wedding reception, we never see her feet, even as the other guests are hollering in appreciation. The viewer becomes keenly aware that she is only getting part of the story. But when the truth is so troubling, sometimes part of the story is more than enough.
★ ★ ★
Unrated. At AFI Silver. Contains language. In Georgian with subtitles. 102 minutes.