There are few cliches in film criticism that will induce more eye rolls than the claim that a location is so vividly realized that it becomes a character in its own right. But then, few films in recent memory have been quite like Unclenching the Fists, the sophomore feature from director Kira Kovalenko, premiering in the Un Certain Regard strand of this year’s Cannes Film Festival. It’s one of the most striking cinematic portrayals of an abusive family home not because of its explicitness, but because of how effectively it frames a wider setting that feels just as stifling. In this case, it’s Mazur — a former coal mining town in the North Caucasus.
Mazur is the kind of town that offers zero prospects to its young people, leaving only a generational bitterness towards those who decide to leave, even if they do eventually return from a planned new life in a big city. This isn’t highlighted through Unclenching the Fists’ cosmically bleak setting, nestled amidst imposing cliffs underneath impossibly grey skies, but via the few means of escape people have. The only nightclub appears to be inside a school gymnasium, which still has its volleyball net draped over the dance floor, while other favorite pastimes seem to exclusively be hurling firecrackers at apartment buildings that look more like prisons, and watching cars skid around a desolate piece of muddy land opposite. Tokyo Drift, this is most certainly not.
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Said apartment building is home to Ada (Milana Aguzarova), a young woman who is, along with her younger brother Dakko (Khetag Bibilov), effectively being held prisoner by her father (Alik Karaev). Neither she nor her sibling have a key to their own home and are only allowed out to work. Even then, Ada’s every move is controlled. When her father hears she’s attracting attention from a local boy, for example, he cuts her hair short and confiscates her perfume. When he starts to fear that she may too attempt an escape, like her older brother Akim (Soslan Khugaev), who has managed to escape his control, he hides her passport. There’s an even deeper underlying tension when it comes to Ada’s wellbeing, not restricted to her mental health, with the suggestion that her dad is effectively stopping her from having an operation to recover from scars across her stomach, related to a “school hostage crisis” she was a victim of years before.
Unclenching the Fists is unsparing in its bleakness, so it makes perfect sense that Kantemir Balagov, the director of Beanpole (and co-screenwriter of Kovalenko’s debut, 2016’s Sofichka) has described it as the best film of the decade. But while there are a couple of moments where Ada is treated with outright degradation, Unclenching the Fists is generally a lot less explicit in its depiction of emotional abuse than Balagov’s work, instead working best as a vivid portrayal of a family home where the lingering effects of years of harsher psychological torture hang thick in the air. It’s why Ada’s attempts to escape her father’s clutches are so agonizing to watch, as she at one point relies on a local boy who excels in a different kind of emotional abuse, feigning romantic interest just so he can sleep with her. In a film of unrelenting discomfort, the ways in which he manipulates Ada into spending time with him are the starkest. Even when out of the family home, Unclenching the Fists’ protagonist is unable to escape from the clutches of repressive men.
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Unclenching the Fists is even more impressive as a character study. Kovalenko subtly examines Ada’s relationship to what is affectively imprisonment, and how despite her need for freedom, she remains in the clutches of Stockholm Syndrome. Ada’s small acts of self sabotage, such as breaking a smartphone that could be her only connection to the outside world, only complicate any attempts to move out from her home, suggesting that she’s as terrified of freedom as much as she yearns for it. Could Ada, for example, only be chasing a relationship with an emotionally abusive man because she knows that it’s doomed to fail? Repeat viewings of Unclenching the Fists may be required to fully unpack Ana’s innate contradictions, although it’s not a criticism to suggest very few viewers will be eager to do that immediately afterwards.
The third act, in which relationship dynamics within the family are significantly altered, heightens Ada’s desperation to leave while also suggesting she still desires parental approval to chase the freedoms she remains intimidated by. It’s an impressive tightrope walk for any performer to undertake, made even more commendable by Kovalenko’s decision to cast her film using mostly non-professional actors, most of whom are making their screen debuts. Aguzarova is nothing short of outstanding as Ada, in one of the best recent depictions of a repressed figure slowly cracking in real time, her ability to remain naturalistic in the midst of emotional hysteria likely to be the envy of trained thespians the world over. Kovalenko’s casting choices for a film with such intense subject matter may be her boldest swing, and she hits the mark successfully.
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Unclenching the Fists is an uncompromising account of emotional abuse, and it’s amongst the bleakest films of the past few years. It’s a haunting watch, but a substantial one; a movie that will move Kovalenko up to the next tier of filmmakers in the arthouse and festival circuit.
Alistair Ryder (@YesitsAlistair) has been writing about film and TV for nearly five years at Film Inquiry, Gay Essential and The Digital Fix. He’s also a member of GALECA (the Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association), and once interviewed Woody Harrelson, which he will probably tell you about extensively, whether you want to hear about it or not.