Film festivals: crazy, fast-paced fun for the first few days, but by weekend two everyone has gone, either physically or mentally. With fifty viewings (Fifty Screens Of Grey) across two festivals and three weeks, and a notably dark tone to many Berlin offerings, I was suffering by the time I got to Andrei Zaitsev’s 14+. What a pick-me-up: the film turned my mood around completely, such was the sweetness and honesty of its portrayal of young love.
Alex (Gleb Kalyuzhny) is a social media-era adolescent. Infatuated by the quiet, pretty Vika (Ulyana Vaskovich), his shyness and the local group of toughs prevent him from approaching her, and instead he follows her with some obsession online. Ogling her photos is ultimately unsatisfying for him though, and he makes tentative steps into her life, starting at the school dance. The rough kids, his mother and Vika’s family must all be navigated, but this is truly a story about first love, and how you experience these essential moments without the language or experience to guide you through.
If any of this sounds glib or clichéd, worry not; Zaitsev is aware that these formative years are as amusing as they are emotionally turbulent. This is for both the audience and the characters themselves; after the mopey, self-interested tone of mega-hits like Twilight and the sarcastic sniping of the Frat Pack films, it is refreshing to see young people who can laugh at not just each other but also themselves. They seem to genuinely enjoy being around one another.
Some of the humour is nostalgic, but some is just at the sheer hilarity of the events – look out for a scene involving a burning carpet. The kids are imperfect; Alex is quite the stalker in the early scenes, while Vika sells him out in order to fit in with older kids. However the more time they spend together the more they learn about the importance of kindness and treating other people as humans.
The spirit of John Hughes shines strong here, not just in the story and characters but in a director able to make bold choices at the right moments. At one point a jolly swing cover of Radiohead’s Creep plays while the kids dance in the rain. Zaitsev follows this immediately with a gorgeously tender scene of Alex and Vika driving through the city at night, soundtracked by the original version of the same song. It goes against all sense and really shouldn’t work, but this makes its success all the more commendable.
Of course the film would not engage the audience without a keen leading pair, and both Kalyuzhny and Vaskovich are more than up to the task. They have a chemistry that actors several times their age would long for; such was the connection between the two that when they shared a first tender kiss, the enraptured audience in the screening I attended gasped first, then applauded.
14+ is more than kissing teens though; there are many astute observations about growing up and facing situations for the first time. The little moments are especially good; when Alex politely thanks Vika’s parents after visiting their flat for the first time, he is met with a knowing ‘Come again!’ from her mother…and silence from her father. There is also an excellent performance at the side from Olga Ozollapinya as Alex’s mother, a single parent with challenges of her own as she faces losing her only child who represents a part of her own personality.
There is a loose Romeo and Juliet connection at play, although far more in terms of exploring intense feelings at a young age than in any manner of unjust separation/fate. I know some people baulk at the youthfulness in stories such as this and consider it over-trodden ground; I will never tire of films made with as much heart and warmth for its characters and for young people in general as 14+.
Stay tuned to @dreamdepends for the latest trailer and release info for this gem of a film…