In March of 1991, Georgia held an independence referendum, to which 90.6% of the population responded. Four days later, the Georgian Supreme Council officially declared independence from the Soviet Union. In the aftermath of the S.U.’s dissolution, Georgia’s already significant ethnic tensions, concentrated mostly in the coastal regions, escalated into a Civil War. Nana Ekvtimishvili’s first feature film, which she co-directed with German filmmaker Simon Gross, is based on recollections of her young adulthood in Tbilisi during this time, and the national agitation is incorporated subtly but deliberately. While the context may not necessarily be familiar to American viewers, Ekvtimishvili and Gross employ it as an inseparable backdrop to a story that, in many ways, feels universal.
In Bloom follows two fourteen-year-old girls, one stoic and principled, the other more flighty and volatile, through daily life in Tbilisi. Eka (Lika Babluani), the steadier of the pair, has an older sister whose friends gather in their apartment to smoke cigarettes and gossip about sex and boys. In another, equally nondescript apartment, her best friend Natia (Mariam Bokeria) lives with a pair of bickering parents, a truculent grandmother, and a younger brother who runs around unchecked. Both girls are flirting with rebellion, and the destructive potential made all too accessible by the unrest that has only recently shifted its locus away from the capital.
In Bloom is straightforward to the point that its power creeps up on you. This is a small film made without excess frills, and its visual character parallels the innocence of its two main characters, who are at an age just before they’re forced into the cosmetic concerns of womanhood, but when the weight of adult life is already encroaching upon them. Often, the camera follows the actors in long tracking shots as they move, but when they’re at rest, the camera stays at rest too. This approach lends gravity to the moments when the girls are still, cloistered in various domestic situations — and with it, an unsettling dullness. Their story becomes a subtle collection of recurring themes that, taken as a whole, are surprisingly complex.
Tension exists everywhere from school to the line where the girls wait to buy their family’s bread rations, ubiquitous enough to seem like a mundane detail. But these minor conflicts also reinforce the parallels between the changing country and the girls’ own painful transition into a reality that’s beyond their control. Theirs is an adolescence besieged by threats both vague and immediate — Eka is repeatedly harassed by two boys on her way home, Natia sits indifferently at a table where her father-in-law discusses the war on the coast — but like many young teenagers, the girls acknowledge this distress mostly by refracting it through the lens of their own friendship. When Natia witnesses the two boys bullying Eka, she berates her friend for not fighting back. Likewise, when Natia is abruptly married to a relative stranger, Eka sits wanly at the celebration, mirroring the apprehension her friend is unable to express openly.
These scenes accurately express the paradoxical power of a teenage friendship: the two girls are protected, but also made vulnerable, by the fact that they expect more from each other than they do from the world around them. Their relationship is territorial and occasionally combative, but their passions are shared. Natia’s pain is Eka’s also, and when Eka dances at Natia’s wedding, the gesture of confidence is for her friend as well as herself. So when an act of sudden violence occurs, Eka’s strength in the face of Natia’s wild grief is all the more powerful.
While the film isn’t particularly distinctive in stylistic terms, its light touch and attention to detail deliver unexpected rewards. Both young actresses are convincing and relatable, and Bokeria is particularly good as Natia, whose delicate looks belie a streak of ferocity. Their performances anchor a measured, unassuming work with a quiet staying power, a film that teases out moral conflicts but draws its strength from the emotional ones.