Dark in both the dramatic and literal sense, In Bloom follows two teenage girls in Georgia during the country’s 1992 civil war. Nearly everyone they interact with seems determined from the get-go to make their lives miserable: Their abusive parents and grandparents, the old ladies who snap at them from the bread line, the teacher who humiliates them in class just because she can. This is even true of the filmmakers, who set several scenes in dark hallways, dark tunnels, or outdoors at night without lighting equipment, so the action is almost entirely obscured.
Is the film’s grainy technique and relentlessly grim script the product of inexperience? Or is it a fitting expression of the crippling hopelessness of Georgian citizens? Certainly Tbilisi, the capital, was a dark place to grow up in the early 1990s. Residents were contending with decomposing infrastructure, an untrustworthy military (in one scene, two soldiers cut through a line of starving masses to take their fill from a bread truck), and street justice where the strongest claim whatever and whomever they want. In Bloom is based on the childhood of writer and co-director Nana Ekvtimishvili, and was Georgia’s Best Foreign Language Film Oscar submission. (It didn’t make the shortlist.) It’s appropriately weighty and filled with loss-of-innocence undertones and some fun cultural detours, yet the film’s odd flatness makes it hard to invest in.
The two friends come from different economic backgrounds, though Ekvtimishvili and co-director Simon Gross wisely understate this aspect. The pretty, assertive Natia (Mariam Bokeria) is constantly on her guard in her tenement apartment, protecting herself and her brother from the giant fights that break out between their mother, their alcoholic father, and their perpetually furious grandmother. Meanwhile, the timid Eka (Lika Babluani) enjoys the comforts of a large house, piano lessons, and an older sister who introduces her to life’s vices, even as her mother’s strict regimens keep her in check. Natia is pursued by two men eager to marry her, and comes into possession of a handgun, which changes hands from her to Eka throughout the film—though Eka’s role in the story is mostly to gaze on Natia’s hardships from a distance and offer advice or worry.
There’s a pervasive culture of violence among the characters, the civil war in microcosm. A talk-radio host in the opening shot argues in favor of arming every Georgian citizen, setting the tone. Eka is harassed on the street by dirty boys her own age, who threaten her with knives. Violence even infiltrates their romantic lives: Natia’s gun is given to her as a present by the boy she likes, and later, without giving too much away, her romantic rivals shed blood over her. Ekvtimishvili’s script is strongest in moments like this, understated character-driven societal critiques.
Yet somewhere between the complete lack of background music and the wooden acting from the green cast, In Bloom stays at an emotional arm’s length. Maybe it’s the uniform glumness that takes over the film in a manner that doesn’t feel entirely intentional, like those too-dark-for-the-camera corners the characters so often retreat to. In the most memorable scene, Babluani performs a solo traditional Georgian dance routine in an extended take that lasts several minutes. It’s a blessed change of pace that she has plenty of light.