‘Stop-Zemlia’ review: Ukrainian drama captures teenage universality

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Ukrainian filmmaker Kateryna Gornostai turns to her teenage years, in all its feelings, friendships and trial and error, for her directorial debut, “Stop-Zemlia,” an immersive portrait of high school life, a time when young adults manage to become themselves.

Opening with a series of portraits of its teenage characters drawn from documentary-style interviews sprinkled throughout the film, the narrative focuses on Masha (Maria Fedorchenko), one of the kids outside the popular gang, who finds close-knit company with her two best friends, Yana (Yana Isaienko) and Senia (Arsenii Markov). This trio is often nihilistic about the state of the world, but Masha leads a comfortable life. She experiences the kind of universal teenage angst that stems from her unrequited desire for connection, belonging, and, of course, the cute boy in the class, Sasha (Oleksandr Ivanov).

It’s tempting to compare “Stop-Zemlia” to the HBO series “Euphoria,” because these teenagers also wear colorful makeup and experiment with alcohol, drugs, sex, and self-harm (the only main difference: gun safety to prepare for army training). But there’s something quite innocent about this depiction, which doesn’t try to be an outrageous or searing portrait of youth, but to create an emotionally authentic depiction of this overloaded and sensitive age.

Emotional and subjective realism prevail in this otherwise naturalistic and observational film. Gornostai recounts moments of magical, dreamlike surrealism when Masha finds herself daydreaming or dissociating, imagining herself playing badminton on a theater stage or watching a sparkling black slime flow from a self-inflicted gash in the wrist.

Sometimes “Stop-Zemlia” (the name of a game they play which is a cross between tag and Marco Polo) seems a bit long, but it’s a pleasure to just hang out in this world with these characters, to feel so deeply what they do. At the end of the film, Masha asks the film’s documentarian, “Do you feel connected to your emotional state when you were my age?” The sensually crafted “Stop-Zemlia” is a great conduit for bringing out those visceral memories of teenage life.

‘Stop Zemlia’

In Ukrainian with English subtitles


Operating time: 2 hours, 2 minutes

Playing: Starts January 21, Laemmle Glendale; also on VOD

About Victoria Rothstein

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