Documentary Review: Polish teen seeks some semblance of normal via “Communion”

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Ola runs young Nikodem through his Catholic Communion drills, prepping him a ceremony she knows this “on the spectrum” kid could mess up.

She goes through his backpack, weeding out everything “you don’t need.”

She calls and chews out the man of the house for being out at the pub. They need a bigger flat, so she’s the one who has to handle the town council paperwork.

And she badgers Magda, her mother, about coming to that Communion, about leaving the man she’s taken up with and had a baby with, and moving back in.

On a rare outing, she gets to feel “normal,” laughing and dancing with her peers. But when she comes home, she weeps at “this pigsty” she lives in, at her overwhelming responsibilities, at the dysfunction all around her.

Ola Kaczanowski is 14 years old.

Filmmaker Anna Zamecka‘s Oscar short list (Oscar eligible, a possible nominee) documentary “Communion” (“Komunia,” in Polish) is a study in resilience in the face of dysfunction, a profile of a child forced to grow up, be the adult, in a house where no one else will take the job.

Her mother Magda ran away, and when we see Ola’s dad, we understand. Maybe the drinking started after she left (Magda is younger and prettier. Maybe it was the final straw. He is an ineffectual lout, collecting public aid, shrugging off every decision, every household job, to Ola.

“Ola can’t take care of Nikodem on her own,” the unseen social worker barks at him (in Polish, with English subtitles). And yet here he is, drinking and smoking at the pub, ducking out on home life.

If that wasn’t enough, Magda’s son Nikodem, Ola’s 13 year-old brother, adds to the picture of “overwhelmed,” another excuse for Mom to run out.

Ola doesn’t have that option. She relentlessly drills the fidgety Nikodem on his Catholicism, teaches him to tie his shoes and battles his constant distraction. We meet him as he’s scolding himself for not putting on his pants properly. He stares at his fingernails — at home, in school and in church. He sees them as “claws.”

Ola chides him for his Communion notes — reading “No Mongols allowed” and “Jesus and the dinosaurs” — passages aloud, in mockery.

“You can’t do such things in religion class.” The kid is one joke-around on the church PA system away from blowing it. At least he’s very good at memorizing, which is what it takes to pass muster with the priest.

Ola lets us see the weight she carries, shrieking at her drunken father for somehow losing their TV, desperately badgering Madga to come home — making reasoned arguments, building her case, making living arrangement promises.

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Zamecka’s all-access film means we see Ola’s desperation, and Magda’s resignation. Each one needs a break, and each is counting on the other to give it to her. Seeing Ola with a baby half-brother in her lap is just chilling.

These are the saddest moments of “Communion,” Ola’s tireless, adult efforts to get some sense of a “normal” childhood back, her grown-up-too-fast realization that it’s all come to naught.

Zamecka gives us a home movie glimpse of Ola’s own Communion, years before Magda left, when her life had more promise. Zamecka sprinkles in details — a post-ceremony meal, classes where the priest leads the kids in a “Magdalena Cha Cha Cha” song about Catholicism set to “When the Saints Go Marching In.”

“Communion” isn’t so much a coming-of-age story as a “My hard life begins in childhood” account of a smart, tough and responsible kid having to get tougher and smarter at a very early age. Watch Ola with her classmates, with her family. She’s been forced to be the adult, and that’s turning her into a leader.

That makes her a teen we worry for because we suspect that revisiting her in ten years she could go either way. Will she be worn down by life, with diminished expectations marking her 20s and the rest of her future? Or will she grow up to be a smart woman hardened in childhood for a life of leadership in a country where too many are resigned to sit back and let others do the heavy lifting? “Communion” cries out for a sequel — maybe of her own child’s Communion, decades in the future.

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MPAA Rating: unrated, alcohol consumption, smoking, profanity

Cast: Ola and Nikodem Kaczanowski

Credits: Written and directed by Anna Zamecka.  An HBO Europe/Otter Studios/Wajda Studios/Polish Film Institute release

Running time:  1:12

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