Jasmila Zbanic‘s feature debut, “Grbavica: Land of My Dreams” is unpretentious enough to address its subject matter, the shattered lives of postwar Bosnia-Herzegovina, with serious, grounded realism, but it’s also too unimaginative to think of its central mother-daughter struggle in anything but the simplest of dramatic terms. A character-driven drama like “Grbavica” needs fully developed characters to work. It’s not enough to slap a few traits onto each personality and then watch them collide – conflict! – with the smallest or least revealing of learned lessons offered as a final payoff. What might have been a cathartic exploration of the trauma of war thus comes off as a pedantic exercise in “growing up” and “moving forward.”
The film begins with middle-aged Esma (Mirjana Karanovic), fresh from securing a waitress job at a mob-run club, playfully wrestling with her tomboy teenage daughter Sara (Luna Mijovic), until things get out of control. It’s a metaphor for their entire relationship, with Esma foregoing availability to provide as a single mother and Sara, in the throes of adolescent rebellion, lashing out at mom and others. The point of contention is a school class trip – Sara must either pay a fee her mother can’t afford or else give proof of her father’s status as a shaheed, a martyr who died fighting for his country in the Bosnian War, so she can go for free. In between household chores and attending group therapy for war victims, Esma struggles to come up with the cash rather than procure an official document confirming her late husband’s sacrifice; in the course of events she embroils herself with her violent gambler boss while finding a friend and possible lover in one of his bodyguards, who also lost a close relative in the war. Sara, meanwhile, often left to her own devices, compulsively lies to her teachers and classmates about her father’s heroics and involves herself with a gun-brandishing gangster boy.
Disappointingly, “Grbavica” fulfills Chekhov’s famous aphorism that an introduced gun must go off at story’s climax. The firearm shouldn’t have been introduced in the first place: “Grbavica” is a modest drama about people dealing with the unending aftermath of war, and Zbanic betrays its parameters by resorting to shallow, melodramatic excess, as when Esma’s guarded secret, and her reason for hiding information about Sara’s father, is brought out in the open for a rote resolution. This leaves a host of potentially interesting subplots and issues inadequately addressed: how does the seedy underworld with which Esma comes into contact relate to postwar recovery? Is there any connection between this destructive path and Sara’s boyfriend? So eager to bring attention to (possible spoiler) the war crimes around which it has constructed a weak narrative, “Grbavica” neglects its own strengths.