Published Sep 23, 2011Ironing out some of the inconsistencies and tonality issues of his last feature film, Moscow, Belgium, Belgian director Christophe Van Rompaey dives into familiar territory with Lena, exploring the pained adolescent experience of an outsider
But the titular Lena (Emma Levie) has more going on than the standard angst-ridden teen. She's initially resigned to degrading modes of promiscuity with boys too ashamed to admit to boning a fattie, only to find a completely different struggle when the conventionally attractive Daan (Niels Gomperts) expresses a genuine interest in her.
Even though Lena has some obvious insecurities, desperately seeking validation and companionship wherever she turns and taking abuse from her Polish bus driver mother, Danka (Agata Buzek), she has some backbone to her, standing up for herself when necessary and carrying the veneer of confidence regardless of what she's feeling underneath.
It's a complex emotional tapestry juxtaposed with line dancing, of all things, wherein voiceovers about carefully choosing your steps and keeping a smile on your face even when you screw up speak volumes about her day-to-day existence.
Because of this psychological complexity, her eventual decisions when faced with sexual advances from Daan's father come off as strangely logical, making her martyrdom that much more disturbing. It's a feeling that comes both from the build-up and central performance from a brave Emma Levie, as well as Van Rompaey's naturalistic direction, which knows exactly when to step back for a fluid, stylized moment of reflection, allowing the audience to absorb what's on screen.
Aside from the obviousness of a victim protagonist doomed to a cycle of misfortune, the only thing holding back this thoughtfully executed drama is the many morally questionable decisions Lena makes. Many would find it challenging to identify with her ambivalent relationship with her mother, or her response to Daan's criminal lifestyle, making this somewhat of a hard sell despite being intelligent and well crafted. (Isabella Films)