The girl is Lilya (Oksana Akinshina), whose spirits are especially high when she tells her friends that she's moving to America with her mother and her mother's boyfriend. But Mama has a surprise on moving day: Lilya must stay behind for a while, living alone in their crummy apartment under the indifferent watch of her indolent aunt.
"I'm an old sick woman," says auntie (who looks just fine), her gaze fixed on the TV. "I need a comfortable home." And when Lilya begs for food, money, or an apartment with electricity, auntie tells her, "Go into town and spread your legs like your mother did. Now leave me alone."
So much for family. In her apartment building, Lilya runs afoul of a nasty neighbor who liberally salts her wounds when, day after day, Lilya gets no mail from America. A letter finally arrives at Social Services, and the agency calls Lilya in to inform her that her mother has formally forsaken guardianship. And that's it. No foster home. No offer of help. Not even sympathy, which you'd think wouldn't cost the social worker anything.
Lilya's first trick (this was, of course, inevitable) is a middle-aged man who picks her up in a bar and then pumps away at her in bed, grunting and snorting through his pleasureless intercourse as Moodysson's camera slowly moves in on Lilya's impassive face. (As far as we know, it's her first time having sex.) Then she meets Andrei, a handsome young man with a gentle smile who gives her a ride home and expects nothing in return. She's suspicious of his kindness, for this is not the sort of Russian she knows. But he seems to be OK, and they soon become boyfriend and girlfriend.
At this point, Moodysson's story toys with a particular sort of second-act sentimentality and convention. But instead of a hackneyed love story, he goes for an even more horrifying choice: Andrei says he now lives in Sweden and can get Lilya a job there picking vegetables. So he puts her on a plane for Stockholm -- where she's swiftly scooped up by the Swedish pimp for whom Andrei serves as procurer.
From there, Lilya 4-Ever is pretty much over, its better strains left behind in the former Soviet Union. Once Lilya gets to Sweden, Moodysson's story has one more odd element. In Russia, Lilya's best friend is Volodya, a teen-age towhead who dreams of going some day to a Heaven so he can play basketball for eternity. He kills himself when Lilya leaves without him, and during her Swedish odyssey, he visits her (in dreams or magical reality we can't be sure) as a white-winged angel, beseeching her not to give up hope.
None of this is too relevant, or even too appealing, in the shadow of Moodysson's larger story about a decaying society of desperate, depressed, self-centered adults and the children they don't have the energy to worry about anymore. He films Lilya 4-Ever in a docu-drama style that recalls the often choppy and superficial, yet still culturally interesting, slice-of-life work of the American director Larry Clark (Kids, Bully).
For an hour or so, Lilya 4-Ever -- she engraves this anthem, in Russian and English, on a park bench -- is well-dramatized sociology, albeit rather focused on a small group of characters, with no sense of the wider culture around them. The aimless, jobless, heartless thugs in Lilya's neighborhood rape her when they feel like it (Moodysson spares us the details), and the settings -- including an abandoned, Soviet-era submarine plant that the kids visit, and where their parents used to work -- are all in proper decay.
Because Lilya 4-Ever is predominantly a social-issue film, Moodysson generally eschews (or simply foregoes) scenes of complex emotion, some of which he did quite well in his earlier films. In fact, as if to presage the angelic dead Volodya, his most wrenching moment seems to occur only in the doomed Lilya's imagination. When her mother leaves, an angrily taciturn Lilya at first withholds a poignant farewell. But just in time she thrusts herself into her departing mother's arms, and the two women sob to the heavens.
Moodysson is Swedish and only 34 years old, and prior to Lilya, he made two better movies: Fucking Amal (or Show Me Love for American marquees), a smart and tender coming-out story of a girl who's also 16 years old; and Together, a shamefully entertaining dramedy of some middle-aged hippies hanging on to a life of communal subsistence. This is a promising, if scattershot canon from a director clearly interested in matters sexual and cultural, whose work so far occupies a thorny neutral zone between art cinema and message movie. It remains to be seen which side he'll finally take, although I wouldn't bet against the latter. In Russian, with subtitles.