When you read the broad description of Antoneta Alamat Kusijanovic’s Murina – a teenage girl comes into her own as a woman during a visit by her father’s wealthy friend – you may think you know the kind of movie it is. Kusijanovic knows it too, and uses those perceptions in her favor; few things are better than a filmmaker smart enough to lean the viewer in to what they think they’re going to see, and then sucker-punch them. This is one of the best films I’ve seen this year – wise, witty, and wildly unpredictable.
Gracija Filipovic stars as Julija, a young woman at an awkward age – she can be around the adults in her parents’ circle, but feels tentative and self-conscious. She’s poised at that deeply uncomfortable moment when you feel grown up (the cinematography, by the great Hélène Louvart, captures the way Julija soaks up the sex around her) but you’re still trapped in a “my house, my rules” situation, and she’s deeply tired of the way her father Ante (Leon Lucev) orders her around, making her work and clean and go deep-sea fishing with him every morning. While cleaning those fish with Julija, their cook notes, “Look how she bit her own flesh to set herself free,” and no, that line isn’t just about cleaning fish.
“Please, be patient,” pleads her mother Nela (Danica Curcic). “Tonight is important.” Indeed it is; the wealthy Javier (Cliff Curtis), whom Ante used to work for, is coming to their home on the Adriatic Sea for a visit, and while he’s there, Ante is hoping he can sell Javier a pricey plot of land. That sale would solve a lot of problems, creating some uneasy stakes; Javier is a family friend, but also one they need something from. Complicating matters further, Javier and Nela were lovers once, and still seem attracted to each other. Complicating matters further than that, Julija seems attracted to him as well.
The screenplay, by Kusijanovic and Frank Graziano, carefully sets up the various apple carts Javier’s visit will upset. Julija and her father are already at odds – he’s stubborn, and she’s a teenager – but he takes each of her little acts of teenage rebellion as a personal affront, and responds with cruelty of both psychological and physical varieties. Nela spends much of her time in the middle, making excuses to one and reprimanding the other, or vice versa. She doesn’t come out and say how she feels about this family, nor does she have to. (Lucev has the picture’s most thankless role, and he plays it without pulling punches, crafting a vivid portrait of a very small man.)
So here comes Javier, a fourth party entering this already shaky three-person dynamic and, by his mere presence, flipping it over like a table. “My mother dressed up for you last night,” Julija tattles. “She changed a couple of times.” He enjoys this information, but he also enjoys throwing little glances and winks at Julija, who responds in kind; Nela, of course, is particularly perceptive (“Stop looking at him like that, you look like you’re in love”), and her father even more so. Curtis is an inspired choice for the role, an actor who can speak volumes in a single, crooked smile, at ease in the skin of a character accustomed to having the world, and everyone in it, at his disposal.
The picture’s middle section is its most compelling, a series of lazy, lyrical hang-out scenes with something of the vibe of La Piscine (and thus, A Bigger Splash): beautiful people, luxuriating in the sun, contemplating things they shouldn’t. Julija enjoys Javier’s attention, but her goal is simpler: if he and Nela rekindle their relationship, they’re both rid of Ante. Nela is skeptical – “He forgets about us the moment he boards the plane,” she insists – But Julija challenges her mother’s assertions and assumptions, and vice versa. “If I had your power I would use it,” Julija insists. “Then it’s a good thing you don’t,” Nela replies.
Filipovic makes her feature acting debut here, which is staggering; it’s a marvelous performance, built on the sturdy foundation of a teenage girl’s expression and perspective of perpetual disdain and endless annoyance, but slowly revealing the frightened and nervous little girl underneath. One of her best scenes comes early, when Ante forces her to recite a terrible poem he wrote years earlier, as an apology to Javier; his flop sweat would overwhelm the scene, were it not topped by her sheer embarrassment. But the way she dispatches a curt “enjoy your evening” to the guests after he dismisses her is brutal and beautiful. Her other real moment of greatness comes late in the film, when she finally plays the card you’ve been waiting for her to play with Javier, but it’s done in such a state of desperation and despair that the effect is heartbreaking.
Most of Murina is focused tightly on these four characters, and they’re drawn with such richness and texture that two miraculous things happen: you’re urgently invested in their outcome, and you cannot possibly predict what it could be. And then, somehow, the events of the closing scenes seem inevitable. That’s some neat trick, particularly from a first-time feature filmmaker (the picture won Kusijanovic the Camera d’or at Cannes last year). This is an electrifying debut, and I can’t wait to see what she does next.
“Murina” is out Friday in limited release.