This unrelentingly severe autobiographical nightmare is probably the dourest memoir of childhood ever made. Twelve-year-old Valerka (Nazarov) lives in a far-flung corner of Soviet Asia in 1946, in a mining town partly inhabited by Japanese PoWs. His tense hustle of an existence is relieved only by Galia (Drukarova), a rival tea-vendor in the market. Rarely was a film so single-mindedly devoted to the proposition that life is hell, but Kanevsky's philosophy is rather less compelling than his way of conveying it. Jerky camera movements and monochrome photography so grainy it's better described as grubby - these trademarks of high vérité pall quickly. It's the often baffling cuts and jumps that let the story breathe. Kanevsky ends his thorough dramatic drubbing by pulling out a Brechtian 'only-a-movie' twist that whiffs somewhat of bad faith. This apart, the film has an undeniable authority, though with the best will in the world you couldn't call it life-enhancing.
Cast and crew