Reviewed by: Amber Wilkinson

"Gornostai avoids obvious narrative arcs in favour of just letting us hang out and observe the everyday challenges and small dramas that pepper the lives of these 16-year-olds."

Kateryna Gornostai opens a window into the world of a group of Ukrainian teenagers in her debut fiction feature - although, more accurately, it is a series of window to multiple worlds, each subtly shifting on its axis towards adulthood and occupied by an individual of this strong ensemble cast. The different realms of Masha (Maria Fedorchenko) and her friends Senia (Arsenii Markov) and Yana (Yana Isaienko) come into contact with each other and those of other teenagers at the high school where they are all coming towards the end of their final year.

Some of the things you would expect from this environment - a house party, a class trip and a school dance - are present and correct but Gornostai avoids obvious narrative arcs in favour of just letting us hang out and observe the everyday challenges and small dramas that pepper the lives of these 16-year-olds. The end result, which features a considerable amount of improvisation from the cast and is interestingly intercut with straight-to-camera interviews about life and their perspective. Shot during the casting process, they feel almost like interludes with a school counsellor but they have a strong ring of documentary truth and are likely to strike a chord with many other teenagers further afield.

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Masha is a quiet, artistic sort, who pays attention to the little things, like the ghost mark left on a school window pane by a leaf. She puts it on Instagram where it leads her to spark up an ongoing, offbeat conversation with user @gryum74, who she doesn't know the real life identity of. This is just one of several elements of the film that could easily play out in a much bigger way but Gornostai keeps things low-key and more believable. Masha's friends might make an aside about her chat with a stranger "being weird", urging her to let them know if she ever decides to meet up, but it's just a small part of the fabric of teenagedom, where connections are made and lost on a daily basis.

Gornostai lets us see the normality of it all, which is, paradoxically, often emotionally enormous, the regular meet-ups with pals, but also the experimentation that goes with trying adulthood on for size, whether it's a new look or a kiss that comes with an extra frisson courtesy of spin the bottle. There's an emotional backdrop - Masha has previously seen a shrink, Senia might well benefit from one because he has experienced some conflict trauma and has a fractious relationship with his single mum - but the film is more focused on the everyday anxieties of growing up, such as whether the boy you like, in Masha's case Sasha (Oleksandr Ivanov), fancies you back. Once or twice, there's a bit too much lingering, particularly at that high school dance, but if there is a bit of spare air to Gornostai's film it does, at least give the character's room to breathe.

Appropriately, the film's title refers to a game - a sort of variation of the UK's tiggy-off-ground - that means "Stop-the-world". These kids don't want to get off, they're just looking for the right place to get on.

Reviewed on: 24 Aug 2021
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Stop-Zemlia packshot
Drama follows a shy teenager and her friend as they navigate their 16th year.

Director: Kateryna Gornostai

Writer: Kateryna Gornostai

Starring: Maria Fedorchenko, Arsenii Markov, Yana Isaienko, Oleksandr Ivanov

Year: 2021

Runtime: 122 minutes

Country: Ukraine

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