Not many films get made in Latvia every year, so the chance to see one is a rarity and with a film like “Mother, I Love You” (“Mammu, es Tevi milu”), it’s also a treat. Directed by Janis Nords, the film tells a fairly simple story in a very sophisticated way, proving the too-often forgotten truth that with good cinematic storytelling any tale can be tense, suspenseful and emotional. The winner of an award in the Generation category (the youth section) at the 2013 Berlin Film Festival, “Mother, I Love You” captures all of the drama and desperation of a young boy caught in a difficult situation from his unique perspective.
Raimonds (Kristofers Konovalovs) is a young boy living with his single obstetrician mother (Vita Varpina) in Riga. He scooters to school, plays saxophone in the band and plays Wii at home when his mother heads out late at night. They coexist more like roommates than mother and son at times, even squabbling over laundry. Raimonds also hangs out with his friend Peteris, exploring the contents of the luxury condo she cleans. They are typical troublemaking boys and end up stealing the key so that they can come back and rev the Vespa that sits in the living room of the 4th floor apartment.
On the cusp of adolescence the boys cause the usual trouble at school, tormenting and teasing the girls who are taller and meaner to them. This leads to a behavior report write up, which Raimonds tears out of his notebook, and to a call from the counselor, which leads him to break the home phone. Raimonds is terrified of his mother and the beating she will most certainly give him for these infractions. So while he’s resourceful and clever at getting out of these jams, it turns out these quick fixes only lead to more, and worse problems than he was originally faced with.
What works about the sequencing of events in “Mother, I Love You,” as Raimonds finds himself entwined in a petty theft investigation, is that all of the decisions he makes, while completely the wrong decision, make perfect sense in the mind of a young boy who is desperate to avoid punishment. The film is pitched exactly at his level, so all of the drama and tension feel absolutely real. The choices make sense from his perspective. And the real danger of the film isn’t the streets of Riga at night, or police officers or the teachers at school— it’s the menacing mothers who convince their children to behave (or at least appear to behave) because the threat of a slap lies just under the surface of their cajoling and coaxing. Yet there is still that loving relationship, that desire to remain close to her. The titular phrase is never uttered, but it doesn’t have to be; it’s implicit in Raimonds’ interactions with her.
Director Janis Nords mentioned that he looked at a thousand school kids to find the right boy for the part, and Kristofers Konovalovs is perfect in the role. With his sweet and youthful face, the danger around him is apparent, especially when he roams the city streets at night or is inspected in a police lineup. While he’s often impassive and expressionless, and this demonstrates his ability to get away with what he does, at those moments of fear and desperation we are truly there with him, fully understanding of the situation and his emotions within it. He’s naturalistic and at ease just being a kid in front of the camera, but he gives a very detailed and emotionally layered performance. Vita Varpina as his mother gives an equally nuanced performance, switching between loving and threatening with a single look.
Towards the end of the film, the plot begins to meander in a way that doesn’t quite match up with the taut and driven pace of the first two thirds of the film, but manages to end on a sweet and satisfying note nevertheless. This story may seem simple in certain ways but it’s a fine example of a well-told coming of age tale and an accurate representation of childhood dramas, bolstered by fine performances. “Mother, I Love You” is a worthy addition to the small, but growing canon of Latvian cinema. [B+]