Rating: A-/ Prostitution is bad, okay, kids? Lukas Moodyson’s tale of a sixteen-year-old girl sold into sexual slavery will scare any man away from hiring a hooker much in the same way that Requiem for a Dream scared us away from heroin abuse. Much of it’s power relies on the performance of Oksana Akinshina as Lilya, a world-weary but somehow naive teen ekeing out an existence in a low-income Estonian suburb. Lilya’s mother (Lyubov Agapova) abandons her willful daughter at home to go run away with her boyfriend to a new life in the U.S., and her aunt (Liliya Shinkaryova) (a grade-a cunt if there ever was one) moves her niece into a complete shithole so she can live in relative comfort in Lilya and her mother’s apartment. In fact, Lilya’s only real lifeline is an abused adolescent named Volodya (Artyom Bogucharskiy,) who becomes her confidante and friend.
I’ll leave the story of how Lilya goes from a pretty typical, mercurial teen to a young prostitute and human trafficking victim for you to find out, but let’s just suffice to say here it’s not a pretty picture- at all. However, Lilya 4-Ever manages never to exploit it’s subject matter or it’s young lead. The sexuality is never designed to be trashy or titillating, and will ultimately leave you shaking your head at the ugliness of it all. There is beauty on display here as well, mostly in the form of the friendship between Lilya and the young boy, Volodya. But you have to get through a lot of misery to find the seed of goodness that exists within the story. If this film makes you angry, it’s done it’s job. For although Lilya isn’t always the nicest character in the world (being the moody, irritable, belligerent teen she is,) she is always a deeply human one, and it’s impossible not to feel something for her by the end.
Meanwhile, the lead actress Oksana Akinshina, simply owns the role of the titular character. She never lets us forget she is just a kid, a kid with dreams stuck in a dead-end life where second chances are hard to come by. We see how much Lilya and Volodya idolize American culture, enthusing about Brittany Spears and Michael Jordan and imagining themselves happy citizens of the U.S. For two naive kids, America must be paradise. Little do they know that soul-crushing poverty exists everywhere, not just Estonia. Switching countries does not necessarily make everything better, and Lilya soon finds that out when she allows a charismatic stranger to whisk her off to Sweden.
Among the sadness and the wreckage of innocence we see some telling commentary regarding gender politics. A group of local boys who casually hang out with Lilya at her apartment turn on her like rabid dogs when they get the suspicion she is selling herself for money. The abuse starts out as heckling and name calling and devolves into sexual assault (the aftermath of the gang rape scene is one of the most deeply puzzling elements of this movie, as Lilya bounces back from it almost immediately.) One has to wonder why these guys treat Lilya like shit when they’d probably hire the services of a whore in a skinny minute. Why is it supposed to be the woman’s job to draw the line? Why is it the prostitute’s responsibility to abstain from being such a prostitute while guys, supposedly, can’t help themselves?
I’m no feminist. I think society is at least as misandrist as it is misogynist. It isn’t a picnic to be a man in today’s world either, and guys face the same issues (objectification, sexual abuse, body shaming) as girls do. But try watching this movie without getting pissed off by the patriarchal bullshit Lilya faces from the men in her life. It’s impossible, you can’t not get angry. In this movie, we see life through the eyes of a young prostitute – a child, really- and it becomes more and more obvious to us that this kind of enterprise is all about the man’s pleasure, and not about the woman’s. Sure, she gets paid, but who’s that money really going to? I don’t judge men who seek out the services of a hooker; I doubt they take the time and effort to consider what led the woman to be in the situation she’s in (If they did, I think it would kill their woody.)
But Lilya 4-Ever forces us to confront our preconceptions the kind of young woman we all take for granted. The saddest thing about this story is that it absolutely could have been prevented, had the adults in Lilya’s life given half a damn. Lilya didn’t have to end up living out a nightmare the way she did, and her character is absolutely unforgettable. Like Taxi Driver‘s Iris, she’s a girl at once experienced and heartbreakingly vulnerable. Only this time, there’s no Travis Bickle to come in guns blazing, kill the pimps and save the day. Once you go on this journey with Lilya, you will never forget her face. Moodyson and Akinshina make sure of that. An important film but also a very, very sad one, Lilya 4-Ever is a powerful story that you will not forget any time soon.