- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 4, 2003

The Swedish filmmaker Lukas Moodysson, whose third feature, “Lilya 4-Ever,” has been booked exclusively for a week at the American Film Institute Silver Theatre, made a provocative debut in 1998 with a high school sex comedy retitled “Show Me Love” when imported. The original title was unprintable, albeit intelligible, in English.

Mr. Moodysson seemed to finesse the sophomore jinx by dealing with a larger group of characters in “Together,” a nostalgic social comedy about struggling Stockholm communards during the 1970s. Now he seems to have contrived a junior jinx with “Lilya,” a clinically superficial downer about a Russian teenager lured into prostitution in Sweden.

The track record so far suggests that the jury needs to do some more deliberating about Mr. Moodysson’s talents and tendencies. The fashionable tilt in “Show Me Love” — a pair of schoolgirls possibly smitten with each other — was subject to a playfully caustic and skeptical outlook about infatuation itself. “Together” was more promising than satisfying, especially when compared with the best movie on the same topic made a generation earlier, “Jonah Who Will Be 25 in the Year 2000,” from the Swiss director Alain Tanner.

“Lilya” introduces 16 year-old Oksana Akinshina as the title character in a prologue set in Sweden. With Lilya presumably at a suicidal turning point, the film retrieves the events that brought her to the brink, commencing with the departure of her mother, who is offered marriage by an emigrant who has moved to the United States. She lies to Lilya about sending for her later. The girl, banished to a cheaper, squalid flat by a vindictive relative, discovers from a caseworker that her mother has revoked all responsibility for her care.

A lot of this seems to be going on with the minor characters, who simulate a Russian older generation. In context, the generational betrayal seems an expedient shortcut for the filmmaker, who may not want to trash Russian parents in general but can’t be bothered with adequate explanations. Someone else would need to write them, anyway, because he doesn’t speak the language.

Is it really unthinkable that someone as attractive as Miss Akinshina could find a rescuer among family or neighbors? The bratty disincentives don’t look insurmountable. For prurient purposes, numerous temporary guardians come out of the woodwork. These sexual predators are first encountered in discos Lilya prowls with other jailbait classmates. The predators multiply like vermin when she is transported to Swedish captivity. The heroine must endure a quick-cut sequence of about a dozen grunting clients, positioned ominously and nakedly above the camera.

The question arises whether “Lilya” measures up as a topical polemic. It claims to be dedicated “to the millions of children around the world exploited by the sex trade.” If anyone is actively trying to resist the trade in Russia or Sweden, it would be difficult to credit such benevolence on the basis of “Lilya,” which appears to suggest that anything goes in those jurisdictions.

Moreover, the inability to imprint persuasive signs of fear, disgrace and despair on the face of such a young and ingenious stand-in for sex slavery diminishes the gravity of the conception. “Lilya” is a lurid work of fiction that pulls punches in self-evident ways, partly by insisting on an actress who can’t be expected to know or simulate the worst. Mr. Moodysson doesn’t have to be fanatically literal, like the director of the appalling “Irreversible,” but he’s not sufficiently engaged in humane options to clarify Lilya’s entrapment in adequate or redemptive detail.

As a matter of fact, he settles for redemptive mysticism and anticlimax. Lilya has one trusted companion back home — Volodya (Artiom Bogucharskij), who becomes an angelic confidante after she departs. The angelic conceit is not the only problem. Whoever constructed the sets of angel wings needs to send the producer a refund.

Mr. Moodysson might have done the world a few favors by documenting how sex slavery operates across national borders in that burgeoning market known as the European Union. Ultimately, it’s all so veiled that he might as well be blaming America for forcing the Russians to become back numbers and then failing to adopt all the children they prefer to abandon. If the Lilya exchange represents modern socialism in action, there’s plenty of incentive for passing the buck.

*1/2

TITLE: “Lilya 4-Ever”

RATING: No MPAA rating (Adult subject matter, involving juvenile delinquency and prostitution; occasional profanity and sexual candor; fleeting nudity and graphic violence)

CREDITS: Written and directed by Lukas Moodysson. Cinematography by Ulf Brantas. Art direction by Josefin Asberg. Costume design by Jessica Cederholm. Music by Nathan Larson. In Russian and Swedish with English subtitles

RUNNING TIME: 109 minutes

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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