Teenage years are such a fascinating part of our lives. Probably because it’s a chasm between the landmasses of child and adult that every one of us remembers being so terrifying in one way or another. It’s as universal as it gets. Kateryna Gornostai’s new film Stop-Zemlia explores the realm of teenagers in the contemporary world with sensitive and intriguing insight.
The story centres around a group of classmates in their final year of high-school. The central character is Masha (Maria Fedorchenko), a quiet introvert who is stuck in the full storm of adolescence. While she enjoys hanging out with her friends Yana and Senia (Yana Isaienko and Arsenii Markov respectively), she doesn’t truly know what she wants out of life, and finds her feelings for classmate Sasha (Oleksandr Ivanov) unrequited. The film follows Masha and her classmates as they navigate life and attempt to find themselves.
Easily the best thing Stop-Zemlia has going for it is how articulately it captures the pessimism and fear of being a teenager. It’s a time of great excitement in many ways as the entire world feels open to those about to leave high school. But that endless spectrum of possibilities is daunting and incomprehensible. Uncertainty is rife, and the burden of expectation weighs as much as the planet itself. Add that on to personal struggles, be they domestic or romantic, and it’s small wonder so many teenagers think the world is against them.
Gornostai and her team capture this scary world through many narrative and filmmaking mediums. A large array of mid-shots are used throughout the film to create an almost documentarian feel to the story, placing the audience in the centre of the drama with its characters. Every time they share a laugh we are there feeling the warmness of the scene. But we are also there every time they show insecurity. One plot point involves Masha chatting to an Instagram account that follows her, resulting in her pouring her heart out to a complete stranger that could be anyone or anywhere in the world. Another plotline involves Sasha having domestic struggles with his mother due to his indifference towards life. Gornostai and team paint each character with several strokes, showing that everyone standing on the precipice of adulthood has some degree of anxiety and strife. The inclusion of non-actors, a choice that dates back to Agnes Varda and beyond, is an especially clever choice in elevating the realism of the film’s tone and sincerity.
Perhaps the most interesting choice of the film is to interlace interviews with the characters throughout the film. To break up the film’s story, each character is asked about their opinions on life, love, fear and pressure among others. It not only helps to give us insight into each character’s perspective, but it gives a degree of style to the film that also assists its naturalism. Gornostai treats her characters like genuine people, which not only enriches the world she has created but the themes of adolescence that she is exploring.
These are all terrific merits to the film. But it sadly suffers from a lack of narrative when all is said and done. I’m usually quite the fan of films that are mostly vibes and not necessarily plot – half of my favourite Studio Ghibli films follow this choice – but there doesn’t seem to be much of a destination in mind with Stop-Zemlia. Perhaps I’m missing something, but it felt more like a series of events than a natural progression of character. Maybe that was the point, but I did find myself very aware of the two hour runtime as I was watching.
Bo Burnham once said that he initially envisioned his 2018 feature Eighth Grade as an ensemble piece, before eventually reducing the protagonists to solely Kayla. If he had stuck to his original idea, I imagine the end product would’ve looked something like Stop-Zemlia. It may have a meandering feel to it, but its genuine portrayal of teenage angst and sympathetic approach to it more than makes up for this. It’s a confident feature with its heart in the right place, and I predict it will do wonders for those who get fully on board with its themes.
Director: Kateryna Gornostai
Writer: Kateryna Gornostai
Stars: Maria Fedorchenko, Arsenii Markov, Yana Isaienko, Oleksandr Ivanov