In any other situation, the absurdity of a ten-year-old standing in the school playground haggling over the phone to secure baby items from a perplexed Gumtree contact, unseen and unconvinced at the other end of the line, would play as broad comedy. But in Slovenian-Australian filmmaker Sara Kern’s beautifully realised feature debut Moja Vesna, this moment, alongside many others, will rip out your heart and dance on the sorry fragments.
Expanding on the writer/director’s award-winning short Vesna Goodbye, this Melbourne-set melancholia unfurls in the outer suburbs. Moja (magnificently expressive newcomer Loti Kovacic) is almost single-handedly trying to keep her family together in the wake of the unseen death of her mother, a tragedy she chooses not to acknowledge. When pushed to do so, she sinks into a sort of fugue state that can only be managed by repeating out loud the sort of disaster response instructions you’d learn if you were the fire warden in an office building.
While it’s painful to witness these quiet collapses, Moja is handling things far better than those around her who should rightfully be guiding her through this unspeakable moment. Older, though still young, sister Vesna (Mackenzie Mazur) is pregnant – hence Moja’s quest for baby clothes – and in freefall. Chain-smoking her cares away while performing spoken-word poetry haunted by dark imagery of spiders and scars, Vesna will no more confront the reality of her pregnancy than Moja will face the loss of their mother. She repeatedly throws herself in harm’s way, to Moja’s increasing alarm.
It’s blindingly obvious that their Slovenian-born father Milos (Gregor Bakovic) needs to step up. But his old-school brand of blokey stoicism is a solitary one, and he doesn’t appear to have the necessary tools to support his daughters. Though he has a point, when he responds to Moja’s exclamation that, “I can’t cry because I don’t want to,” that that’s her problem.
In denial or not, it’s all down to Moja to prepare for new life in the shadow of despair, which brings her to Miranda’s door. As played by Australian legend Claudia Karvan, beloved for TV shows Love My Way and The Secret Life of Us, Miranda is a port of maternal kindness in this thankless storm. She’s looking to donate the childhood bits and bobs of her young tearaway daughter, appropriately dubbed Danger (Flora Feldman), with whom Moja also forms a bond.
It's a simple set-up for a story simply told, but there are multitudes held in Moja Vesna’s pregnant pauses. Kern’s previous short Good Luck, Orlo!, about another young kid nursing cruel grief, garnered plenty of attention at international film festivals from Venice to Toronto. This delicately traced debut feature also popped up in competition in the youth-orientated Generation Kplus competition at Berlin, deservedly so.
Kern demonstrates an assured understanding of how the mind of a young girl can be both indomitable and impossibly delicate all at once. She guides Kovacic through a remarkable performance as someone forced to shoulder far too heavy a burden at exactly the wrong time. Mazur, too, is a revelation as the wilful Vesna, a storm unto herself. An opening sequence depicting Moja burying her older sister in sand adorned with seaweed and crowned with a feather discarded by the shrieking seagulls that cluster around them is beautifully realised by cinematographer Lev Predan Kowarski.
From there, the film continues like the grainy, shaky quality of a home video, with the actors’ delivery sharing that candid approach. It’s also framed in the old Academy ratio, a rectangular picture that exacerbates the claustrophobia of the family’s situation. Then, slowly but surely, Moja Vesna works its way back to hauntingly poetic imagery, again tied to the sea, that’s increasingly lit with an amber glow. Because the dawn always comes, and Kern’s gently unmooring film is here to hold us in its warm embrace.