“In Bloom” takes place in 1992 in Tbilisi, the capital of the newly independent Georgia, after the collapse of the Soviet Union. It’s a turbulent time: Vigilantes roam free, and a war on the Black Sea coast has sent violent shock waves throughout the country.
Very little of this do we see, but we feel the threats just the same. The republic’s newfound independence has not only stirred new enmities; it’s also unearthed old ones.
With this turmoil as its backdrop, “In Bloom” presents a story that, on the surface at least, is an almost generic coming-of-age drama about a pair of 14-year-old best friends and classmates. Eka (Lika Babluani) and Natia (Mariam Bokeria), both headstrong, are from dysfunctional families. Eka’s father is in a military prison; Natia’s is a raging alcoholic. (Question: Are there any functional families in the movies anymore?)
Eka is spindly and plain-looking, but she’s a fighter. The bully boys who regularly attempt to ambush her on her walks home from school find this out the hard way.
Natia is a budding beauty and already has several suitors from the neighborhood. Since teen brides are common in Georgia, it’s not long before she receives a proposal from Lado (Data Zakareishvili), a nice young man who, as a token of his love, gives her a present: a pistol with which to defend herself. She accepts it almost matter-of-factly. We may be startled, but she is not. She knows full well the society she inhabits.
It’s this matter-of-factness that is the most chilling aspect of “In Bloom,” which was codirected by Nana Ekvtimishvili (who is Georgian and who also wrote the screenplay) and her husband, Simon Gross. The presence of the gun is also a reminder of that old Chekhov maxim: If you introduce a gun in Act 1, you have to use it in Act 3. This doesn’t quite happen here: A different utensil of violence is employed. But the principle remains the same.
Ekvtimishvili, whose first feature this is, draws on her own girlhood experiences. At its best the movie has an unstressed freshness. Although it draws on everything from “The 400 Blows” to “Mean Girls,” it doesn’t feel derivative. Scenes come out of nowhere and yet seem perfectly commonplace, like the moment when Natia, in a raucous, pushing-and-shoving bread line with Eka, is suddenly hustled into a car by an old boyfriend, Kote (Zurab Gogaladze), and his hoodlum cohorts. This is what is called “bridenapping” in Georgia, and it’s ingrained in the culture. The girl is supposed to be gratified that a guy thinks enough of her to forcibly remove her from the scene.
The poignancy of the film is that we can see how these two spirited girls are destined to become much like their parents – riven, bitter, beaten down. The culture they are rebelling against is too much for them, or will be.
For all its virtues, “In Bloom” never quite blooms. I suspect that’s because the directors are so intent on not fomenting any melodrama that they often miss the drama. The camerawork is functional, but rarely do we feel the pulse of this story. And, by casting the film with nonactors, its expressive possibilities are dampened. Bokeria looks so much the part that she can get away with just being sharp-eyed and pretty. But Babluani is kind of a stiff: The directors may have intended her blankness to be the merest of masks for her rebelliousness, but that’s not how it comes across. Much of the time she’s just blank. She even dances blankly, as if she were carrying out the directors’ instructions from just off camera.
Sometimes nonactors can enhance a film’s verity, as in many of the early Vittorio De Sica classics (“The Bicycle Thief,” “Umberto D.”). Other times, we are all too conscious of amateurs straining for effect. “In Bloom” has enough going for it that it transcends, barely, these impediments. It’s a universal story that is also, by virtue of its very particular time and place, a singular experience. Grade: B (Unrated.)