Director Zaida Bergroth
Finland (127 mi) 2017 d: Zaida Bergroth
A sisterhood is powerful movie, at least initially shown with a pop culture sensibility before eventually becoming a searing drama about survival against all odds, combining the forces of two long lost sisters in a near fantasy world of show dancers, where their party worlds intersect with gangsters and corrupt politicians, growing darker as the film progresses. Not at all what it seems, this is a carefully drawn character study that features two sisters with opposite personalities, with Angela (Krista Kosonen) as the Alpha dog, a highly charged exhibitionist with plenty of gall and gusto, which is needed when facing the drunken male patronage she seeks, having to endure catcalls and leering insults, but also the gangsters she owes money to, while her younger sister Anna (newcomer Sonja Kuittinen) comes from a small town, where she is more cautious and circumspect, shyer in every respect, looking up to her big sister, enviable of the easy manner in which she engages customers, not having the same kind of confidence in herself. What starts out with a burst of energy, showing a kind of spontaneous combustion, where the glitz and glamor of showtime has an accompanying pop theme, soon turns on a dime in a private moment that spirals out of control, yet both estranged sisters are literally dropped in each other’s laps, exploring a hard edge that soon finds the girls on the run, while also renewing their family relationship. Anna, the supposed good girl, was raised by their father, who recently passed away, while Angela, the supposed bad seed, was sent to a foster family, where she was exposed to a religious upbringing. This adds a touch of innocence to her otherwise hardened life, as she prays every night before she goes to sleep, carrying on a running dialogue with God. While Anna has a special fascination with her big sister, looking up to her, viewing her as a success, she soon discovers what lies behind the veneer of good fortune, as Angela is in way over her head in debt, which has been transferred to some gangsters who view her as easy prey, and seems oblivious about the consequences. Anna is more grounded in reality and devises a somewhat devious plan to make more money, which includes filming Angela in private dances with wealthy customers, usually drunk, then bribing them to pay for the footage to avoid it being posted online. As they pick up the cash dropped off in carefully designed public places, this veers into thriller territory, adding plenty of suspense, with viewers well aware of what might happen if things go wrong,
The maker of The Good Son (Hyvä poika) (2011), which won 1st Prize in the New Director’s Competition at the Chicago Film Festival, this is a much more detailed and complex film, fluctuating in moods, given a rambling and more adventurous style. Making the film from a female perspective completely alters the film, adding psychological nuance, where the director is impressive in her ability to create meaningful characters instead of a gritty world of strippers that accentuates sleaze and exposed nudity under a male gaze, where some male film critics see this as a defect, such as Ethan Vestby from Cinema Scope, Cinema Scope | Miami (Zaida Bergroth, Finland) — Contemporary ..., finding the film “a hopelessly bloated and misbegotten piece of work,” preferring the film was instead made by Paul Verhoeven. This is inexcusable sexist commentary from one of the better film magazines and misses the point, as there is no way on earth the more exploitive-minded Verhoeven could have ever made “this” film, which is superior in every respect. One of the earliest clues to appreciating the depths of this film is the use of Bruce Springsteen’s Dream Baby Dream - YouTube (5:00), with its familiar refrain recurring in integral moments, a song hanging between hope and nihilism, used as a mad rush of exhilaration in Andrea Arnold’s American Honey (2016), becoming something softer and more tender here, like an unanswered prayer, where one can only dream for the impossible. With the title becoming symbolic of a warm fantasy world (exactly the opposite of Finland), one that supposedly lies directly behind the real one, with Angela asking her younger sister to have faith in its existence, especially when things begin to falter, to keep aiming straight towards it, as one day they would make it there, becoming a sprawling epic from the outset, a film that follows a mysterious road journey deep into the heart of Lapland, becoming colder, darker, more threatening, with the sisters matching wits with detestable criminals who make a living collecting unpaid debts. In one of the more fascinating developments, Anna develops a peculiar mastery for finding ways to blackmail people, which actually becomes an endearing quality, as she only does it to save her sister from a horrible fate.
As the film evolves, we learn so much more about each sister as their back history surfaces. For instance, Angela was removed from the home as a dangerous and mistrustful influence when her father discovered Anna underwater while being given a bath. This news from Angela is revealed so matter of factly, without an ounce of remorse or menace in her voice, summoned as if by magic to her memory, which she willingly shares as an act of love with her sister. Their road success is remarkable, as Anna gets into her role, feeling more boldly empowered and confident, while Angela is such a live-wire act that her unpredictability knows no bounds, effortlessly taking risks few would ever dare to do, but it all comes so natural for her, as if she’s been doing it her entire life. Their remarkable chemistry together is the heart of the film, as it doesn’t feel fabricated, but true and authentic, yet their trust in each other is tested each and every day due to continual unforeseen circumstances that lead them into trouble, where as soon as they think they’re safe, more trouble pops out of nowhere. Co-written by the director and Jan Forsström, they’ve created a powerful screenplay, where small, intimate moments occur right alongside action sequences, beautifully delivered by impressive acting performances, where this is easily one of the most hauntingly original films of the year. Because of the nature of Angela’s debt, and the kind of people she owes it to, inevitably we’re dealing with the presence of Russian mobsters who bring a sinister level of menace to the screen, yet they’re also seen attempting to infiltrate high offices of government. So on one level, we have street thugs who mean business, who get what they want through ruthless intimidation tactics, while on another level we have businessmen in suits playing a cool but very sophisticated game. The sisters’ journey brings them into close contact with both worlds, without even realizing it, creating a uniquely disturbing scenario that is packed with suspense, offset by the cold, wintry world outside that is a force in itself, becoming all about survival instincts, leading to one of the most chilling finales seen all year, with an equally compelling epilogue that couldn’t be more potent. Disturbing, heartfelt, and often just amazing, this is a quietly powerful film.