Raja is a teen, with a jerk for a little brother and a grandmother who barely looks after them. Her father is long gone, and her mother fled some while back.
But Raja (Elina Vaska) has some sense of her worth, even if she never lets us see where it came from. Boys may pay her little mind in her rural Latvian high school, but she is indifferent. She’s looked in the mirror, and she has that confidence of the beautiful, that Whit Stillman’s characters kvetch about in “Metropolitan.”
There’s an English language competition coming up, and in her magical teen thinking, it’s the answer to all her problems. Stop cutting classes, convince her teacher (Edgars Samitis), master English, win the contest, fly to London, and find the mother that deserted her and her brother (Andzejs Lilientals) to their fate.
“Mellow Mud” is a thoroughly engrossing portrait of Raja’s life, the bane of her existence and what she longs to escape from, if only to fetch her mother. Living on a remote apple orchard farm that the callous Olga (Ruta Birgere) is scheming to sell out from under them, raising the tweenage Robis, whose acting-out is even more pronounced than hers, she needs to change her fate. This contest is her only hope.
Writer-director Renars Vimba’s debut feature stays with his star, focuses all our attention on this child’s quiet desperation, which she hides behind a maturing young woman’s self-confidence. Raja makes every mistake in the book, because that’s what kids do, with or without adult guidance.
And her master plan goes off the rails the moment Olga dies. She doesn’t have to say why she dials the phone, and then puts it down. Reporting that would foil her plan to win a prize, fly to London and drag her mother “home.” The authorities would put her and Robis into foster care, and any hope for a “normal” future based on an idealized (probably false) past would vanish.
No, they’ll live off Olga’s pension, brush off the social worker (Zane Jancevska), “no more skipping school,” she orders, in Latvian with English subtitles. Raja knows she can no longer be “impossible to deal with. She’s smart enough to be able to catch up on all her schoolwork, and self-confident enough to curry favor with the young English teacher who can tutor her so that they can get their mother back.
Vimba’s film, titled “Es esmu seit” in Latvian, throws many an obstacle in Raja’s way, some you’d hope she (and her writer/director) would avoid.
We get no sense that Raja’s mastered English. Only one scene suggests she has a superficial command of it. We get little hint of her impact on boys, and we’re hoping her teacher is above that. The film takes “problematic” turns in ways far too easy to predict, and queasy to accept.
But Vaska, a wonderfully understated actress to be this young, lets us sense Raja’s native cunning, her feminine sophistication and the limits of each. The impulsive teen in Raja pokes through just often enough to make us fear what will happen when all the balls she’s juggling hit the clay-covered farmhouse floor.
The portrait of rural poverty and its impact on children feels real and more universal than Latvian. The kids make mistakes and exercise poor judgement at every turn. “Mellow Mud” makes us fearful for them and dread what is headed their way, because we can see that even if they can’t.
MPAA Rating: unrated, with sex, smoking and drinking, all involving an under-age teen.
Cast: Elina Vaska, Andzejs Lilientals, Edgars Samitis
Credits: Written and directed by Renars Vimba. A Corinth Films release.
Running time: 1:45