2019 was a banner year for rising star Luàna Bajrami: the Kosovo-born French actress and filmmaker was lauded for her scene-stealing turn as a young maid in Céline Sciamma’s luminous “Portrait of a Lady on Fire,” was nominated for Most Promising Actress at the César Awards, and wrapped production on her directorial debut, the intimate coming-of-age drama “The Hill Where Lionesses Roar” — all by the time she was 18. Not too shabby.
Neither is “Lionesses,” which will likely inspire comparisons to everything from Deniz Gamze Ergüven’s “Mustang” (a country setting, an indifferent society, young women desperate to break free) to Sofia Coppola’s “The Virgin Suicides” (deep ennui, an unsettling tremor of what’s to come, a real sense of how to film the bonds between women), all of which hints at a big career to come for Bajrami, on whichever side of the camera she chooses. Any first-time filmmaking tics are largely forgivable: Bajrami, who also wrote the script, tends to both obscure major events and bolster moments that needed more development. For better and worse, the most pleasurable moments in “Lionesses” are the unexpected ones.
Filmed in Bajrami’s native Kosovo and shot in the Albanian language (English subtitles were provided for the Cannes premiere, and they’re impeccable), “The Hill Where the Lionesses Roar” follows a trio of young friends — outgoing Li (Era Balaj), reserved Jeta (Urate Shabani), and apparent leader Qe (a breakout Flaka Latifi) — as they laze their way through a final teenage summer. The girls aren’t wiling their time away before heading out into the world; they’re stuck in an unforgiving in-between with little to look forward to beyond adulthood in their small, slightly backward country town. They all harbor unlikely dreams of going to university and they understandably rebuff their elders’ indication of what might come next. None of that appeals. None of that suits them. All they want is to be free.
It’s a bedrock emotion for any coming-of-age film. Bajrami is clearly compelled by her embattled home, but it’s incredibly relatable, and makes for a unique backdrop for an age-old story. Li, Jeta, and Qe spend their time hanging out, talking shit, getting drunk, dancing, meeting boys, and worrying about what’s coming next. Li snags a cute boyfriend in Zem (Andi Bajgora), while Qe has a light flirtation with the flighty French visitor Lena (Bajrami herself in a small role). Familial secrets are revealed, including the tragedy of Jeta’s home life, complete with dead parents and a lecherous uncle, and Qe’s own fraught family, only brightened by her beloved little sister.
There’s also something else going on just under the surface, and the early appearance of a squirreled-away sock full of cash hints that the girls are up to something more than lolling around on the cement outcropping that serves as their “hill.” Bajrami’s script offers little in the way of explanation, and “Lionesses” picks up long after the trio has begun dabbling in criminal activities to fund their desire to leave. Or, really, their desire to just do something.
The so-called Lionesses eventually announce (if only to each other and Zem) that they are forming a gang and scaling up their robberies. “In this shitty country, it’s the only way,” one announces as they speed away from another crime scene with a stack of cash. As their crime spree grows, so too does their rage. No one will ever suspect them, they muse, because they’re girls, and while that initially brings comfort, it is also emblematic of their lives: No one will ever give them a second thought.
But Bajrami does.
The first-time filmmaker’s eye for details is profound, from her inspired casting of mostly first- and second-time actors to the way the world they exist within moves around them (which is to say, not at all, and then almost too fast — the way that time passes when you’re young). Cinematographer Hugo Paturel, also making his feature debut, is equally adept at seeing the women at the heart of Bajrami’s film. Even pitch-black sequences are lit for maximum understanding, and a sequence that sees us “looking” through a window at Qe’s crumbling family is easily one of the most exquisite — and emotional — shots unspooled this year.
Bajrami and Paturel also love to frame the local cemetery through the broken window of an abandoned, half-finished house that the girls turn into their ostensible headquarters. It’s not just death that beckons them; it’s the worn-down history of the small town they can’t escape. As the crimes get riskier and the rewards get flashier — Qe’s frustrated rage over Li’s impulse purchase of a Jaguar encapsulates so much of what makes “Lionesses” riveting to watch — the inevitable creeps closer and closer.
Bajrami does try to keep it at bay, care of an electric and often infuriating final act in which the girls and Zem attempt to enjoy their spoils without daring to consider the consequences. Half-formed subplots are introduced only to be tossed off; that may speak to the capriciousness of youth, but Bajrami’s other machinations are far better at conveying that same idea. A truncated conclusion also stings, but it also pushes its audience to more closely consider everything that came before, a roar of much more to come.
“The Hill Where Lionesses Roar” premiered at the 2021 Cannes Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.