The Moray eel is a scary-looking sea creature that’s only really dangerous when it’s cornered. But hiding in the cracks and crevices of the deep, hunted as a delicacy, it’s pretty much “cornered” by default.
That makes it an apt metaphoric title for Croatian filmmaker Antoneta Alamat Kusijanovic’s debut feature. “Murina” is Croatian for Moray eel. And this Cannes award winner for Best First Feature is about a dangerous and slippery subject to be wary of, even if you think you’ve got a handle on it — teen sexuality.
A teenage swimmer who has grown up on Croatia’s Dalmatian Coast is just old enough to bridle at her overbearing, bullying father’s control, how it impacts her mother and limits her own future. And in a scheme that has hints of “Lolita” and “Knife in Water” about it, she decides she’ll replace him with Dad’s rich, childhood friend, the Spaniard Javier.
Gracija Filipovic is Julija, 17 and just girlish enough to suggest her immaturity, just mature enough to alarm her ex-beauty queen Mom, Nela (Danica Curcic).
“What are you doing naked?” Mom hisses, as Julija has never shed her swimsuit-all-summer fashion choice. And “Stop LOOKING at him like that,” she hisses again, when inexperienced Julija can’t help but gawk at the sex appeal of rich and laid-back Javier, given a flirtatious edge by veteran character actor Cliff Curtis, of “Hobbes and Shaw,” “The Meg” and “Doctor Sleep.”
In this isolated island village, we see no locals Julija’s age, hear no hint of a “boyfriend.” “Paradise,” her bossy father Ante (Leon Luvec) calls it. “Paradise” Javier repeats when he returns to the scene of “many adventures” he had with her dad before becoming a Business Week cover-mogul.
Julija, ordered around like an employee by her father, is deep into her resentment over that, his hair-trigger temper and boorishness. Javier’s arrival coincides with her growing feeling that “There’s more to life” than this. There might even be more than Dad’s scheme to sell a chunk of the island to Javier for “a resort,” so that they can move and buy an apartment in Zagreb.
The contrasts between the men are obvious, but not archetypal. Javier is kind, solicitous of her and plainly aware of her and her equally-bullied mother’s plight. Ante is frantic, short-tempered, desperate to make this deal with a rich “pal” who might just be looking for a few days on vacation, lost in his more romantic past.
“If he gets this, he’ll be calmer,” Nela assures Julija (in Croatian with subtitles).
“If he gets money, he will be worse,” all-knowing Julija spits back.
As Javier used to have a thing for Nela, that becomes Julija’s first line of attack. And if that doesn’t work, what might be her Plan B?
Kusijanovic immerses us in this world of salt water blues and arid Mediterranean shores. Silent free diving — holding their breaths as father and daughter snorkel down to nab dinner — give Julija blissful isolation, with a hint of danger. There are a lot of ways to drown, poking around holes where the Murina eels hide. And then we take note of the spear guns.
As the sales banter with Javier turns from trying-too-hard (in English) to off-putting, Julija’s “acting out” gains consequences as she ups the stakes. Luvec (“The Load,” “The Miner”) paints Ante’s outrage at this in shades of insecurity. Like all bullies, the cards he has to play are limited. In front of the friend he needs to badly, he can’t slap his daughter silly, and she knows it. Insulting asides — “You have a boy’s shoulders” — is his calmest put-down.
Curcic (of Netflix’s “The Bombardment” and Spike TV’s “The Mist”) gives Nela a sort of haplessness in the face of her increasingly sexual daughter’s “power” to manipulate these two men, both of whom are much older than her, much less the manipulative teen she sees goading them on.
“Murina” is the sort of engaging and tetchy drama that keeps you guessing if it will cross into thriller, right up to the very end. Kusijanovic has given us a “Lolita” without exploitation, a “Knife in Water” with spear guns, and a disturbing riff on toxic masculinity and rash teenaged impulses simmered in a seaside chowder of sex and gamesmanship, making for a dazzling first feature.
Rating: unrated, violence, adult themes
Cast: Gracija Filipovic, Danica Curcic, Leon Luvec and Cliff Curtis
Credits: Directed by Antoneta Alamat Kusijanovic, scripted by Antoneta Alamat Kusijanovic and Frank Graziano. A Kino Lorber release.
Running time: 1:38