Writer and Director: Alexander Molochnikov
Like father, like son turns out to be more than just genetics for Svetla in Alexander Molochnikov’s film Tell Her, playing as part of the Russian Film Festival on the BFI Player, when a move to the USA provokes a violent outpouring from a boy desperate to return to his ‘fun’ father. But with a history of domestic violence, Molochnikov scrutinises a dysfunctional parental relationship and its long-lasting effects on a child looking for approval and space to be heard.
When Svetla decides to leave her violent husband, son Sasha resents being taken from his beloved father. Forced to act as a go between, Svetla soon decides to break free entirely moving with her boyfriend Michael to America, taking Sasha with them. But life in the US is hard for the boy and he is soon back on the phone to his father seeking advice.
By definition, Molochnikov’s film divides into two quite distinct halves, and the first in which Sasha is manipulated by both parents is the most successful. Tell Her creates well the atmosphere of a marriage disintegrating and the selfish need of both parents to win favour from their son, passing him back and forth across a bridge that physically and metaphorically divides their new homes.
But when the film transfers to America, that intimate, domestic tone is lost to a series of slightly overblown set pieces as Sasha’s behaviour spirals out of control. After the initial disorientation which is well managed, the excesses of Sasha’s action come too quickly, falling from golden boy to problem child in an instant, while the moralistic presentation of the American characters as inherently bigoted and patronising feels a little simplistic.
Told from his perspective Kai Aleks Getts carries the film well as Sasha and while he demonstrates a clear preference for his father, in the Russian section Getts is at his best feeling torn between and used by his parents. As Svetla, Svetlana Khodchenkova builds on a similar character in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy but expanded to fill the movie with her character’s erosion, making sympathetic her need to escape tempered by the frustration of her son’s rejection. A loving father, Artyom Bystrov is also suitably loathsome as the father filling his son’s head with poison and struggling to control his temper.
The only troubling aspect of Tell Her is a conclusion that seems to reward bad behaviour and violence which takes the film in the opposite direction from where it started. But as an impression of a marriage breakdown told from a child’s point of view, Molochnikov’s film has plenty of depth.
Tell Her is screening as part of the Russian Film Festival on BFI Player from 12 November-10 December.