In Bloom is constructed in part from writer-director Nana Ekvtimishvili’s memories of childhood life in 1990s post-Soviet Georgia; she and co-director Simon Groß capture the essence of those memories not only in what we see and hear, but in other sense registers. It’s in the texture of dirt scraped off hard-crust bread and in the smell of tobacco from an absent father’s cigarette box. It’s in the muscle memory of a wedding dance performed by a girl not because she’s happy, but because in that moment movement feels like a necessity. The girl in question is Eka (Lika Babluani), and the film charts her adolescent friendship and bond with Natia (Mariam Bokeria) as they grow up in a moment that, from our historical vantage point, we know is marked by grand change. But in the daily lives of these Tbilisi girls, so much seems to remain the same: We witness the quotidian details of scrambling bread lines and dreary school days with draconian teachers before following the characters home to their embattled and dysfunctional families.
References to war and events in Abkhazia point toward a distant conflict that hovers just beyond the edges of the film; the threat of violence becomes palpable when Natia is given a handgun for self-defense by a male admirer. “He wants you to be strong,” Eka tells her friend, and the quality of that strength is tested in the vignettes and encounters that structure the story. The claustrophobic interiors of apartments and houses might be stages for anguished personal drama, but the streets of the city are something else. With their winding alleys and shadowy tunnels, a simple walk from one place to another seems fraught with peril. Ekvtimishvili and Groß craft the film with a long-take realism that both conveys a sense of the rhythm of everyday life while also ratcheting the tension in situations from which there’s little escape.
The foreclosure of possibilities provided by the use of the long take assists in the indictment of chauvinism and patriarchal brutality that underpin, directly and indirectly, many moments in the film. The practice of bride kidnapping, in which a woman is abducted by a man and married to him under threat of shame, dishonor, and violence, is one of the most salient examples. With such a threat in play, even the repartee and conflict between teenage boys and girls is far from benign, but tinged with the possibility of sliding toward something else, something darker. The film follows the outline of a coming-of-age story, but as Natia and Eka look at all the adults in their lives, such a coming of age seems only possible to comprehend in a tragic light. When a man calls for a toast to “Bless all women,” that statement is mined for all its irony.
We’re carried through all these moments by the strength of the two leads; their friendship feels genuine in every aspect, from the broad gestures and banter down to the tiny details. Lika Babluani’s performance as Eka is the highlight, however; as with any good neorealist protagonist, her gaze is like a dagger. She appears perpetually pensive, and the impassive qualities of her expression mean that both flashes of anger and genuine smiles stand out. She’s a witness: Throughout the film she seems to be holding something back, something which is expressed in that centerpiece of a dance that communicates what words cannot. That dance hints at the texture of an interior life, and of wrestling with a moment in which everything is changing yet everything remains the same.