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City of Lost Children 

Maybe it's because Lukas Moodysson's previous effort, Together, was such an endearing, witty look at Swedish communes of the '60s and '70s. Or maybe it's because, after watching Oksana Akinshina's Lilya endure one indignation after another, one feels compelled to blame her humiliating treatment on the filmmaker.

I'm not sure which, but in watching the brutality of Moodysson's latest effort, Lilya 4-Ever, there is an undeniable frustration at work here. And as gripping as the film is in its exploration of the lost children of the former Soviet Union -- represented by the title character and her homeless friend Volodya (Artiom Bogucharskij) -- something doesn't feel quite right. Moodysson scores high marks for presenting with unflinching honesty Lilya's downward spiral when her mother abandons her for a boyfriend and a better life in the United States. It's like watching a heroin-addiction film; there's no promise of a happy ending (depending on how you define happiness). But there remains a question of focus in Moodysson's story; though Volodya serves as a rather obvious angelic metaphor (to the point of him even earning his wings in dream sequences) while watching over the naive Lilya, Moodysson seems unwilling to give his angel more than those wings. Can anyone really look over Lilya? Where's her God when she needs him most?

In one scene after another, Lilya's life dissolves rapidly into a world of easy prostitution and worse; a promising romance with a Swedish businessman, we and Volodya can see a mile away, is bad news. And as life worsens for Lilya, she contemplates the same suicidal route of her friend. But if he's counseling her from the great beyond that it's too soon to give up hope, why doesn't Moodysson provide any? Hey, don't get me wrong. I love a good downer like the next movie-goer. I just want to get my narrative foreshadowing straight.

Regardless, Akinshina and Artiom Bogucharskij provide brilliant young performers. Akinshina's Lilya keeps dreaming of a better life even as it keeps crumbling, becomes more defiant as the odds stack up against her. That she can still, in darkest moments, manage a smile that could rival that of Cameron Diaz, is a testament to Akinshina's skills. Ditto Bogucharski, whose clutching onto a deflated basketball transcends hoop-dream symbolism. He makes us cringe at the thought of him letting go. -- Simmons

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