Avé (Anjela Nedyalkova) and Kamen (Ovanes Torosian) meet on the road, hitchhiking toward Ruse in northern Bulgaria for different and ultimately unclear reasons. He wears a black leather jacket over a blue hoodie with the hood up; she wears a red jacket atop a black hoodie, a brown cap on her head. Little is made of the clothes in the dialogue that begins to build between the two strangers, but the way they dress, along with a few other seemingly minor directorial choices and scriptural contrivances, denote Konstantin Bojanov's Avé as something more memorable and fascinating than a great deal of modern road movies, never mind post-adolescent romances.
The romantic aspect of the narrative may be obvious from Avé and Kamen's first near-precious encounter, as they are both trying to hitch separate rides within six feet of one another. Instead, they pack into the same car heading to Ruse, and to make things interesting, Avé constructs a false drama between Kamen and herself, for the benefit of their temporary benefactors and herself. It's not an entirely unfamiliar scene, but the script uses this small scene as the seed from which this study of performance as distancing mechanism grows, even if it never completely blooms into the rounded and emotionally fulfilling study of such behavior that might have been.
Avé creates various narratives for the people that give Kamen and her rides; in one unsettling instance, she pretends to be a flirty, coy teen prostitute for a truck driver. Kamen doesn't call her out on it, however, until she manipulates a father and son by telling them that Kamen's brother died in Iraq, which culminates with them both being beaten and deserted on the side of the road. Still, Avé's trickery, and in turn the thematic heart of the film, isn't revealed until Avé takes on the role of Ana, the girl Kamen slept with despite knowing that his friend Viktor was in love with her, during a visit to Viktor's family home; it was Viktor's suicide and funeral that brought Kamen to Ruse.
A haunting dinner with Viktor's family and what Kamen perceives as Avé's frivolous and insincere attitude toward the situation sparks Kamen's rage, and this spurs the film's key rousing sequence. Kamen imagines Avé as a manipulator when she impersonates the girl Viktor loved, but his self-seriousness and moral outrage at the situation is a way of making his anger and guilt seem more important, maybe even adequate to what he thinks he did. In essence, it's a familiar argument between the grim seriousness of perceived reality and the odd comfort and risky eccentricity of fiction, an argument made all the more palpable by the appearance of Werner Herzog's non-professional muse Bruno S. as Viktor's eccentric grandfather, complete with accordion.
Bojanov displays a generous range of personal philosophies and reactions to death in this sequence, but what follows doesn't embolden, complicate, or further explore these varieties. Rather, the film becomes (perhaps inevitably) an odd tale of romance between an introvert and an extrovert, one that would have been far more disposable if not for the chemistry between and talents of Nedyalkova and Torosian. To the film's detriment, Bojanov and Anthony Burkus's script introduces a grounding element toward the end of the story—Avé's brother slipping into a coma and dying—that weakens the elevated dramatic tension between Avé and Kamen after they sleep together. The elusive yet seductive relationship between the two travelers is heightened, but the script's playful psychological puzzlement recedes into an uninventive, if still largely engaging, relationship drama.
More consistent is Bojanov's familiar yet no less evocative sense of framing and pacing. The Bulgarian filmmaker favors dimness and shadows and his placement of his actors even further suggests an interest in leaving things hidden and masked. In the motel scene specifically, the director places Nedyalkova in various precise stances or positions that illuminate parts of her body we've never seen before, including her backside, and her back, arched forward so her ribs and spine gently push out. So, even when the film concludes, somewhat unexpectedly, with a newfound breeziness settling into Kamen and Avé further distancing herself from reality, the film exudes an elemental, intriguing mysteriousness, a reminder that things remain unseen and in a state of unrest.