Coming-of-age films are generally hyper-focused on their primary protagonists, think Lady Bird and Moonlight, following their growth while the world around them merges into their individual experience. Ukrainian filmmaker Kateryna Gornostai shifts this dynamic somewhat in her debut coming-of-age film, Stop-Zemlia, which follows Masha (Maria Fedorchenko) while touching intimately upon the lives of those around her.
Stop-Zemlia unfolds in a languid fashion, never rushing to bounce off plot points or garner insight into its characters, which works beautifully in favor of the odyssey. The central trio, Masha, Senia, and Yana, spend most of their time doing what the average adolescent does—talking about dating, sleepovers, and sharing their unspoken anxieties about the future with one another. The sensitive subjects of self-harm and depression are etched with great nuance, infusing the lives of the characters with a unique brand of hope that only exists when you’re a teenager, raging against the bittersweet kaleidoscope of the world.
The film is part character study, part documentary, with all of the teenagers involved participating in a personal interview, answering questions such as “how does it feel to be in love?”(the answers to which are varied but dizzyingly accurate). Gornostai allows certain sequences to unravel naturally, such as the sequence in which the trio gets drunk during a sleepover, taking turns kissing one another whilst getting high-an act of re-affirming love as opposed to a hormonal whim. On the other hand, there are instances of familial dysfunction that meld some characters, such as Masha’s crush Sasha, who shares a deeply complex, frenetic dynamic with his mother, who often makes him feel battered and suffocated.
The cinematography of Stop-Zemlia is stunning, interwoven seamlessly with the carefully-crafted set design, especially Masha’s bedroom and the long-shots in the school scenes. The color palette is muted and vibrant at the same time, symbolizing the duality of existence, especially for those within the tumultuous age bracket wherein the future seems both promising and terrifying at once. This, of course, is complicated by overwhelming social anxiety, the pressure to succeed and meet certain (mostly parental) expectations, unrequited feelings, and the innate need for acceptance. The past and the present meet and unmeet in a formless manner, departing from the established sensationalism inherent within most offerings in the genre.
Although imperfect on many fronts, such as the lack of a solid direction (which is not always a bad thing, by any means) and a tendency to glide over issues instead of delving deeper, Stop-Zemlia is a refreshing foray into the richer textures of teenage life. The question of whether the overarching thought patterns and emotions are subconsciously carried over to adulthood is left unanswered, as it is indeed difficult to navigate, as a part of who we were inexplicably bleeds into who we are in a state of constant evolution. The actors, despite having no traditional acting background, bloom in their respective roles fairly well, adding a naturalistic flair to the awkwardness of teenage life.
In essence, the bittersweet, double-edged arena of adolescence, rife with parties buzzing with genuine camaraderie and jilted feelings, is expressed with great skill in Stop-Zemlia, making it a must-watch.
Stop-Zemlia is a 2021 Drama film written and directed by Kateryna Gornostai.