BNFF Review: 'Mother, I Love You'

Mother, I Love You (Mammu, es tevi mīlu)
(Latvia, 79 min.)
Written and directed by Jānis Nords
Starring: Kristofers Konovalovs, Vita Varpina
Family dynamics change over the years, but nothing changes the old adage that says that boys will be boys. Kids only grow through experience, yet the lessons of life for this generation might not be the same as our parents’ generation. Take, for instance, the coming-of-age tale faced by twelve-year-old Raimonds (Kristofers Konovalovs) in Mother, I Love You. Raimonds, on the cusp of adolescence, lives alone with his workaholic mother in their small apartment in Riga, Latvia. With his mother at work at all hours of the day and night (and keeping up her social life under the guise of a hectic work schedule), Raimonds is forced to grow up on his own. He learns through trial and error when playtime stops being a game.

If you liked Belgium’s The Giants at last fall’s European Union Film Festival, then Mother, I Love You, Latvia’s offering at this year’s Bright Nights Baltic-Nordic Film Festival, is for you. Mother, I Love You, like The Giants, is a coming-of-age tale about young boys growing up without much parental guidance. While the kids of The Giants roamed free in nature like Tom and Huck, however, Raimonds and his friend Peteris (Matiss Livcans) must discover themselves in the busy and potentially dangerous nightlife of the city. There’s little outlet for them to blow off steam, aside from the school band in which Raimonds plays the saxophone, so they’re forced to take boyish behaviour to the extreme.

Peteris’s mother, like Raimonds’, works around the clock, so the boys are often together unsupervised. His mom works as a housecleaner, though, so the boys thieve a client’s key from Peteris’s mom and turn the man’s apartment into their playpen. Breaking in and making fast with goodies like the kids from The Bling Ring (another parallel with The Giants), the boys live without care or consequence. A fib becomes a lie and a lie becomes a betrayal as the boys are forced to deal with the fallout of the fun with no parent to guide them.

Comparisons to the Dardennes’ A Kid with a Bike seem inevitable as Raimonds embarks on a quest to save his prized saxophone, which might be the one constant in his life before it’s picked up by a prostitute who frequents the client’s apartment. There’s a fine air of social realism to Mother, I Love You as writer/director Jānis Nords watches the world through this boy’s eyes. Rarely does the film make an emotional plea, as coming-of-age tales are prone to do, and instead builds the film on Raimonds’ growing emotional intelligence. It’s perceptive and even-mannered as it avoids culminating in a moral lesson; alternatively, Mother, I Love You simply looks at the relationship between parent and child as it exists today by asking the audience how one can be good parent while maintaining a professional life to meet the basic needs of the child. Varpina, one of only two professional actors in the film, is particularly good, as she invests the mother with an ambiguous pathos so that she never appears as complete a monster as her son imagines her to be. The film rarely looks beyond the surface of the mother’s life, though, and hints at potential abuse the goes on within their home, but the understatement of Mother, I Love You makes the domestic drama provocatively relatable.

Mother, I Love You rests squarely on the shoulders of its young leading man as much of the film tasks Konovalovs with carrying the film on his own as Raimonds ventures into the world alone. Nords’ choice to centre the film around a single young actor provides the film both its main strength and its key weakness. Konovalovs, making his film debut after winning the role from a pool of eight-hundred contenders, often struggles to be more than a vehicle for the narrative conceit of happenstance and chance that snowballs into a greater drama as Raimonds learns the transformative power of the truth. The film’s use of mostly non-professional actors throughout the ensemble—in major and minor roles of police officer, nurse, and conductor, etc.—furthers the realism and sociological authenticity, but it undercuts the dramatic payoff. Mother, I Love You is more an observant case study than an engaging tale.

Observant it certainly is, though, for the episodic coming-of-age tale is unsentimentally thoughtful. This much-lauded film scooped a host of festival awards and the honour of being Latvia’s official submission to this year’s Academy Awards race for Best Language Film, and one can see why. Nords’ kitchen-sink coming-of-age tale shows as much potential as its young protagonist does.

Rating: ★★★ (out of ★★★★★)

Mother, I Love You screens at the Bright Nights Baltic-Nordic Film Festival on Saturday, February 8 at 4:00 pm at Library and Archives Canada.

Please visit www.cfi-icf.ca for more information on the festival.