By Alex Gehrlein ’19
Some days at CIFF when you’re killing time between films, you pick up the program and see what’s playing. I saw this film by chance, and am very happy I got the chance to. The Little Comrade is a presently surprising and undeniably assured feature debut from Estonian director Moonika Siimets, and well worth the time spent seeing it.
The film, set during Stalin’s vicious reign in the 1950’s, follows six year old Leelo (Helena Maria Reisner) after her mother is sent to a prison camp and her father (Tambet Tuisk) is left to raise the girl on his own. Secret police investigate the family; food and supplies run tight; tough decisions must be made. All this depressing material is seen through the eyes of our young protagonist, whose perspective keeps the film from sinking into drearier territory.
Leelo’s naturally upbeat attitude brings brief moments of levity to the film, and allows for more visually interesting filmmaking as a result. Siimets’ camera moves fluidly through the rural environment, evoking past masters like Tarkovsky or Malick, and representing the main character’s lighter temperament. Siimets’ overall direction is without a doubt the film’s strongest point, putting it a step above the many films we’ve seen use similar plot elements.
My main problems come from core issues of pacing and performance. When in the middle of a scene, the action and dialogue flow very well, engaging the viewer and relating information effectively. The transitions between scenes, however, can be a bit choppy (especially in the first half). This is probably due to the choice to compact such a large span of material into such a short run time, though to bring it out much further, I think, would lead to issues with dragging instead. I don’t think the scenes we got should have been changed, I just think their connections should have been better established.
As for the acting, the film is carried easily on Reisner’s shoulders, who often upstages the performances of her adult counterparts. Tuisk does a good job as her lovable father, but many supporting characters feel a little too hastily drawn, resulting in caricatures which ring false compared to the more natural tone other moments strike.
All in all, the film is worth seeing, and my issues are fairly minor. Moonika Siimets is someone I hope to see more from and with more resources. Whatever she does next, I plan to track down; hopefully soon.