Movie Review: Ukrainian teens hang onto childhood while staring down adulthood playing “Stop-Zemlia”

Ukrainian filmmaker Kateryna Gornostai reaches for docu-drama reality with her debut feature film, “Stop-Zemlia,” a peek inside the lives of high school teens facing final exams and “the future” with childish obliviousness and adult concern and uncertainty.

The ground covered, the high school “types” glimpsed or followed, are too familiar for a Western viewer to be as fascinated with these kids as she is. And the film’s structure, formatted as a “mockumentary” with the kids being interviewed at graduation, with all their living through that last year covered as flashbacks, is wearily confessional.

But it’s an intriguing sort of stream-of-consciousness drift through one’s teens, demonstrating a universality of experience that anybody who attended high school in the developed West would recognize.

Masha, played by Maria Fedorchenko, is the primary focus, although we drop in on half a dozen or so lives during the course of this year. She is pretty, model-thin with short hair that she’s not shy about coloring, but a kid wracked by anxiety. Masha is working a lot of things out, mostly out of sight of her concerned parents, sometimes with the help of her two besties.

Yana (Yana Isaienko) is her primary sounding board, cute and given to crushes that she impulsively judges and rules out once the actual “date” arrives. The Culkin-stocking-capped Senia (Arsenii Markov) is friendly, with a hint of “haunted” about him. Masha has to take him out of shooting class (teenagers breaking down and reassembling AK-47s, etc.) because “there was shelling on my street” and he’s understandably triggered.

We are in Ukraine, after all, which Russia has coveted since time immemorial.

As the kids study and take class trips and drink and smoke various substances and flirt and play Blind Man’s Bluff and Spin the Bottle, you get the sense there’s a lot of “experimenting” going on. Which is handy, because Masha likes to have sleepovers with her friends.

But this isn’t really that kind of movie. Gornostai is more interested in creating a texture, a milieu, and populating it with “average” (but generally quite attractive, and all clear-skinned and thin) teens than in giving us the big John Hughes romantic “destiny” coming-of-age moments.

Masha might be right for sexually noncommittal, lonely, distant and handsome Sasha (Oleksandr Ivanov), who is being raised by his doting (he’s her only company) single mom. But don’t bet on it.

The interviews, interspersed throughout this two hour ramble, probe what the kids think about “love” and “being in love” and “life after school” and the like. The answers are revealing only in the most generic sense.

And the classroom and field trip scenes have a “seen this in the US, Canada, Britain, France and elsewhere” quality as well. Well, there’s less security in science museums (with spacesuits, spacecraft) in the former U.S.S.R. than there is here.

As interested as Gornostai is in showing us “types” — the giggling, teasing pretty girl who’s a bit of a bully, the tall, handsome boy (Andrii Abalmazov) whose smile gets him what he wants, but whose wants are limited and dull (he’s a bit of a bully, too) — she does almost nothing with them.

No one is “that” mean, that confused, that bullied or that in love.

It’s kind of refreshing that Gornostai has chosen to show how less-obsessed-with-sex Ukrainian kids are than the average Hollywood film insists American teen are. But you have to wonder how accurate that is. She’s asking them about love and romance and relationships, and it could very well be that these 17-18 year-olds are more grown up than their American “Kissing Booth” counterparts. Still, this is just as scripted as any California teen rom-com or sex farce. Who’s to say how accurate it is?

And lacking a more coherent organizing principle than “fly on the wall/slice of life” renders “Stop-Zemlia” — which takes its title from a sort of long-running game of slap-tag — somewhat colorless, if not entirely pointless.

Rating: unrated, nudity, teen smoking and drinking, profanity

Cast: Maria Fedorchenko, Yana Isaienko, Arsenii Markov, Oleksandr Ivanov, Andrii Abalmazov

Credits: Scripted and directed by Kateryna Gornostai. An Altered Innocence release.

Running time: 2:02

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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