Swedish filmmaker Lukas Moodysson gained an international audience by making two honest and ultimately uplifting movies about adolescence. Show Me Love (1998) and Together (2000) entered the sometimes painful world of young female protagonists, showing their subtle transformations from awkward outsiders to outsiders with a renewed sense of community and self-acceptance.
Lilya 4-Ever (2002), Moodysson’s newest film, is also a story of a teenage girl’s coming of age, but that is where the similarities to his other films ends. Lilya 4-Ever is a bleak bildungsroman with a political message about the disparity between “new” and “old” Europe, seen from the perspective of a vulnerable girl forced into prostitution. There is no uplift here, just her brutal reality.
Watching Lilya (Oksana Akinshina), an average teen as the film begins, become a despairing, mistrustful, and under-aged prostitute is both compelling and unsettling. Everyone who proclaims to care about her abandons or uses her, including her mother and her best friend. Still, the film avoids veering into melodrama, and even seems familiar by combining typical teen movie themes (alienation, embarrassment) with social realities, including a booming trade in illegal immigrants forced into sex work.
Lilya first appears beaten and out of breath, running through a gray housing estate that could be any Northern European suburb, to the pounding sounds of German metal band Rammstein. As she peers over the edge of a freeway overpass, the movie cuts to months earlier. This entire-film-as-flashback is a common trick (see also: Confidence), but here it prepares viewers for Lilya’s drastic transformation.
Three months earlier, Lilya is a regular if rebellious teen, living in a small town in an unnamed formerly Soviet state. She lives in a dingy housing estate with her mother, smokes Marlboros when she has the money (“Wall Street” brand when she does not), hangs out with friends, and dreams of America. She shares a birthday with Britney Spears, whom she idolizes. The creeping monoculture of U.S. capitalism is evidenced by the McDonalds even in this dreary town, but more importantly, America is the only thin tether to hope for Lilya and her friends.
For Lilya, this tether breaks when her mother leaves her to travel to the States alone. The girl initially tries to go to school and maintain her routine, but ignorant adults stall her attempts to keep her life in order. An evil aunt arrives and kicks Lilya out of her home, moving her to a dump of a place with a “potato hag” for a landlady. A cruel teacher tells her, as she returns a test, “You have a golden future ahead of you. Just kidding.” Lilya begins to resent adults around her, but she’s unprepared for worse treatment later.
Lilya’s peers, who at least take notice of her plight, are both her salvation and her undoing. When her old friends shun her, Lilya finds comfort in fellow outcast Voloyda (Artiom Bogucharski), a glue-sniffing younger boy with an abusive father. The two create a sort of family, eating dinners of potato chips and vodka in the dark after the electricity is turned off in Lilya’s derelict squat. Their relationship is the film’s emotional center, suggesting, briefly, hope in the form of companionship. But this too breaks down.
Lilya is lured to Sweden by an attractive, “Westernized” boyfriend, promising a good job and a plush apartment. Once there, he pimps her, taking her nightly to a McDonalds parking lot to wait for customers. The place that once symbolized for Lilya the West, the promise of prosperity and freedom, is now associated with her sexual slavery.
The Swedish men she sleeps with are as unfeeling as the other adults in her life (for many, it is exactly her youth that turns them on). Moodysson shows these encounters from Lilya’s perspective, a parade of sweaty, grunting men. Lilya’s fascination with Britney Spears takes on sinister overtones when one of her customers forces her to act and dress like a naughty schoolgirl. This scene reveals the consequences of a public culture that sexualizes teenage girls because it reinforces and trivializes the private trauma of acting out this fantasy.
Lilya is not a “hooker with a heart of gold” or any other stereotype of prostitutes in mainstream cinema. She’s trapped in an economy of sex, not empowered by her sexuality, merely a victim of it. Her small attempts at rebellion just get her into more trouble. When her pimp instructs her to make herself “pretty,” Lilya cuts her own hair and makes her face up like a sad clown, exercising the meager power she has over her own body. But her act leads to a beating, not redemption.
Lilya’s isolation deepens during her stay in Sweden. To console herself, she dreams of Volovyda’s kind words and stares out the window of her apartment prison. What she sees is remarkably familiar to the view she had in her former eastern housing estate—a maze of plain brick buildings, McDonalds, and uniform streets.
Ironically, Sweden is actually nothing like her home. This becomes more apparent in a department store, where she is surrounded by what she dreamed the West would be: colorful goods, happy consumers, and a buzzing economy. But, unable to communicate, robbed of her passport and self-esteem, Lilya can only stare silently and make a futile attempt to escape. What she doesn’t know (and the viewer does) is that she is actually surrounded by Sweden’s social welfare net that might, if she could only make herself visible, give her the education and support she needs to escape the life into which she has fallen.
All this misery, presented so bluntly and relentlessly, starts to beg the question, “What is the point?” In less capable hands, Lilya 4-ever might be monotonous or take on an exploitative edge. But Moodysson’s detail and Akinshina’s subtle performance make it both believable and affecting. The film blows the lid off of the image of a united, integrated Europe so popular in both Eastern and Western European politics. Here, economic differences make the relationship between the former Eastern and Western Europe more symbiotic than equal.
Moodysson shows he is adept at representing the modern world in all its complexity. While his other films centered on tightly knit, almost isolated communities (a Swedish suburb in Show Me Love and a 1970s commune in Together), he uses Lilya’s story to make broad and potent political commentary.