Review: In Bloom
Note: This article was originally published at Movie Mezzanine.
Growing up is hard, but it’s even harder when you live in an environment brimming with violence and under the threat of constant change. That’s the main focus of In Bloom, a new film from the country of Georgia that examines how the country’s various civil conflicts affected a generation of young women. There’s a reason this was Georgia’s official submission for consideration in this year’s Academy Awards: at times it feels less like the story of two girls and more like the story of Georgia itself. The struggles of an entire country are reflected through the lives of individual characters, and the result is compelling, if a bit distant.
Writer Nana Ekvtimishvili (who also directs alongside Simon Gross) draws from her own childhood to depict the turbulent environment of Georgia in the early 1990s. The film follows two teenage girls, Natia (Mariam Bokeria) and Eka (Lika Babluani), who live in the capital of Tbilisi. The collapse of the Soviet Union has left the country struggling to adapt to its newfound independence, and there are military conflicts brewing across the region. Viewers unfamiliar with Georgian history may initially feel confused, but the details of the political upheaval aren’t as important as the effects we witness onscreen.
In an American coming-of-age story, our protagonists would probably be spending most of their time rebelling against their parents and figuring out how to get laid. But In Bloom is much more of a mood-driven film, one in which Georgia’s brewing civil war is felt in every shot but never directly shown. Natia is an independent, energetic spirit, capable of standing up to the men she attracts with vigor and verve. Eka, meanwhile, is quieter and more submissive, not wanting to draw attention and willing to undergo small abuses in the name of avoiding further conflict. It’s a friendship that benefits both girls. Natia defends Eka’s self-respect, and Eka in return tries to keep her friend grounded in the wake of unexpected events.
The world they’ve grown up in is one defined by violence, trickling from the battlefield into broken homes and damaged psyches. Natia’s parents are constantly fighting; Eka’s father is in prison for unknown crimes; teachers rule with an iron fist; young children play with knives; the military steals with impunity; and combatting abuse doesn’t take priority over securing a few extra bites of food. It’s that sense of larger cultural confusion, along with a colder, less optimistic tone, that separates In Bloom from other coming-of-age stories. The narrative is constructed from loosely-connected moments, small quotidian activities that comprise day-to-day life in Georgia. Sometimes these do very little to advance the plot forward—a long, drawn-out scene of Natia getting ready to eat dinner, or one in which the girls are yelled at in a line for bread, for example—but they all hint at a pall of oppression that hangs over the community. Everyone is struggling to get by, and the potential for a violent outburst simmers beneath every interaction.
What’s remarkable about Ekvtimishvili’s script is that it recognizes this only seems foreign to modern audiences accustomed to peace. For Natia and Eka, an atmosphere of constant tension is the norm, and they’re used to dealing with it as best they can. Like most teenagers, they look to free themselves from the established norms as much as possible, but they’re also socialized into accepting certain traditions and ways of doing things. One scene finds a classroom of students revolting against a disbelieving teacher, while Eka looks on with an expression of both defiance and a hint of boredom. The characters of In Bloom are used to sudden switches in power dynamics; it doesn’t matter what changes as long as one is on the right side of it.
There’s an underlying distrust of patriarchy present in almost every scene, as Eka and Natia struggle to assert themselves in male-dominated environments. Long takes follow them as they stand up to the men in their lives, from street thugs to potential suitors, but they can only go so far before social mores ultimately tie them down. In the film’s most memorable scene, a single shot captures Eka as she performs a traditional Georgian dance for minutes on end. She looks completely content, as if she’s reached a new stage of maturity, yet she’s still surrounded by a voyeuristic crowd, and trapped by old-fashioned customs.
The title of the movie is thus both appropriate and stunningly ironic: these girls are becoming women and Georgia itself is in the middle of a major transition, yet there’s significant resistance to progress, and the characters often seem caught in primitive cycles of repression. Meaningful change only happens gradually, and it leaves broken lives in its wake. In Bloom is a beautiful but cynical look at adolescence that argues coming-of-age brings new hardships along with it. The real tragedy of adulthood is that it’s as much about accepting the restrictions society imposes on us as it is about working to tear them down.