An appealing lovable courageous heroine faces her own mortality.
It’s a grand film tradition in Russia.
It is in America too. “No Sad Songs For Me,” “Love Story,” “Beaches,” “Shadowlands,” “Terms of Endearment” — we still make them, and still watch them. But this film is different. It’s a fresh look at grieving, about supporting a loved one, about reaching out and forging meaningful relationships.
“I’ll Be Around” is the Wiki/Amazon title, though literally and in the context of the film it’s more like “I’ll Be Beside/Next To (You)” It’s not a casual “around” as in hanging out on the front porch with a lemonade. It means being right alongside, a palpable presence of companionship that even death can’t take away. But by any English name, it’s Pavel Ruminov’s Я буду рядом, reviewed here in Kino Kultura. For Russian speakers, here is the link to the whole film. There are Russian subtitles for the few snatches of speech in English.
Целый фильм — 1 час, 35 мин.
The plot is straight-up basic, moments and realizations with no surprises. In fact, I’ll even give away the ending because the viewer will see it coming a mile away. Restaurant manager Inna and her 6-year-old son Mitia have a goofy playful life together until Inna’s visual, dexterity, and memory troubles finally lead to a diagnosis. With her medical news, her life mission becomes finding a new adoptive family for her son. She makes a home movie about Mitia, gives copies to a placement agency, then is matched with couples who want to adopt the boy. We witness a series of privileged spouses parade their own virtues and unwittingly reveal their short-sighted insensitivity. Finally Inna is contacted by Olga and Sergei. They meet her, then Mitia, and begin to interact with cautious hopefulness. Joined in time by hospice nurse Sveta, Inna finds herself with a new voluntary family at last, people who support her through the stages of letting go of her son and of her life.
This hard-working understated little story didn’t make an impression on me at first. There’s no sparkling quotable dialogue. The noisy gaiety and silliness of the heroine and her son put me off, as their treats, toys, and games produce what appears to be a flighty self-centered kid. But over time we watch Mom’s zany laugh-it-off outlook reveal a pure absence of self-pity and self-indulgence. She doesn’t utter a word of complaint about her own life. Instead her constant clownishness fuels an unstoppable devotion and sacrifice for the sake of her only loved one.
After a first viewing the characters kept coming to mind for days, as if they were people I’d met. That called for a second viewing, then a third. That convinced me that what makes this film tick is not only what the director and actors brought in, but the artistic touches that they left out. They had every chance to add conventional signal flags to cue the viewer on how to feel. But every time, the characters and camera added no drama at all. They let the meaning and implications dawn on the viewer, as implications do in everyday life. Moments of silence and stillness speak for themselves, leading to a much more believable story.
The film has a good chance of appealing to an international audience. It doesn’t assume knowledge of shared Russian history or literature or cultural identity. The viewer doesn’t need any familiarity with the culture to follow the details (except for the meaning of one song, described below). The important moments don’t require Russian at all, because the important moments don’t involve speech. The characters don’t tend toward philosophical statements or tightly knit rapid-fire banter anyway; visual action is more important than the dialogue. The movie could have been made in Copenhagen or Chicago or Sydney — the credits don’t say. There’s no sign or mention of the usual movie symbols of government, military, or Orthodox church; no knitting grandmothers, no lavish tables spread with national cuisine, no folksy colloquial phrases and gestures. Even food packages are in English, and Mitia meets his new parents at Starbucks. Perhaps the high-rise Euro-modern look was meant to suggest the heroine’s lack of social roots and support? Certainly the issues (single parenting, medical complications, end-of-life planning and closure) transfer intact from country to country.
How did the director and film team make this work?
1. They use a hand-held camera.
The film looks like a documentary made by a close familiar insider. The domestic feel made a nice frame for the home movie that plays a central role in the action.
2. They leave out the incessant evocative sound track.
Most low-income single parents don’t have string quartets available in the kitchen to orchestrate emotional ambience. It was refreshing to see the film unfold without the auditory clutter. When the music did come in much later, it was moving and effective.
3. They let the heroine look and act about the way any of us do when we’re feeling sick and stressed.
In real life, there can come a time when it’s no longer feasible to wear nice clothes, put on makeup, or look like luminous ethereal film stars pretending to be ill.
4. They pass the Bechdel/Wallace test — the women in this film team up and communicate, and not about men. Inna never mentions romance in her future, or romance in her past. (Her only reference is a joke, teasing the stern restaurant inspector at work that he is only there to ask her on a date.) After all, not every woman has a partner to join her care team, or to meet and fall in love with her when life gets tough. The possibility of finding a man comes up only when a superficial paint-by-number medical provider chimes in that Inna should have an affair for its health-toning benefits, and when the equally superficial adoption agent makes the brilliant suggestion that Inna give Mitia to the boy’s father, as if Inna couldn’t think up that solution herself. (The camera then shows us a flashback of Inna’s sadly brave attempt to visit Mitia’s father for help. Within minutes she and the viewer realize that this is a hopeless cause, and that the boy is better off with total strangers.)
Instead of discussing romance she curls up to crack jokes with fellow single Mom Iolka, strikes up a kindred sympathy with adoptive mother Olga, and forms a bond of profound tenderness with hospice volunteer Sveta. Otherwise, Inna does what plenty of other women do: takes care of the kid first, and does what it takes to get through the day.
5. They follow Inna through all the believable changes, minor and drastic.
We see the first moment when she can’t remember the name of the fruit she bought at the market or the names of her new acquaintances, can’t juggle parcels and juice packs for fixing Mitia’s breakfast, can’t watch Mitia go round and round in a loud brightly lit carnival ride without fainting. When Inna returns from the hospital to find Olga and Sergei caring for a happy Mitia and fixing the first nourishing food that we see in the entire film, Inna lashes out at her son as a way to bolster her dwindling influence as his parent. Her mood swings come across as absolutely natural as the illness runs its course.
6. They let the medical professionals be what they are: overworked people facing overwhelming odds.
At 16:00 minutes in, a neurologist refers Inna for diagnostic imaging. She beams a smile at him, asking “So… what could this be, for example?”
This is where the film got my attention.
The viewer waits for the camera to switch back to the expert, who will give her a polished answer, cautious enough to allow for both a range of possibilities and grounds for optimism.
But the doctor has no answer at all.
For the next nine seconds the camera stays on Inna as her smile wavers from bright and upbeat to questioning to wondering to vulnerable.
Then the harried worn out radiologists share a worktable piled with stacks of films. In silence they stare at views of what is clearly a brain in a great deal of trouble. They exchange a minimal glance and a barely perceptible nod. For the moment, faced with those scans, there are no words they can say.
7. They show the clumsy and human moments of incorporating other people into a life crisis.
Inna, now in a headscarf covering stitches and steel clips, tells Mitia that she is sick because of a car accident. He demands details over and over, acting out the accident with screams of distress and model cars terrorized by monster action figures.
At the restaurant, the staff whoops and cheers at her last brave effort to show up and help out, as she awkwardly jots down an inventory of items in the storeroom. The gruff restaurant inspector delights her with the pronouncement “About money: for surgery, treatment, anything: nooooo problem. When you retire on a pension and need the bucks, you come to me. Meanwhile, get back to work — labor is the cure for an alcoholic.”
When Olga and Sergei enter her life and tell the long story of how they first met, they warm to the topic and enthusiastically interrupt one another, both talking at once. Inna in weariness loses the thread of the conversation and simply sits back to bask in their presence. (The smooth parent transfer is my one reservation about the film. At no point does anybody give Mitia an explanation of what is really going on. I expected the new parents to put Inna’s picture on a commemoration wall with a little flower shelf and her keepsakes for nightly prayer time, or to give Mitia frequent reminders of how much she didn’t want to leave his life but why she had to, or to put her quilt on his bed. Something.)
At an hour in, we see the conversation that sets this movie ahead of the pack. In a break from their usual insular symbolic language of favorite toys and games, Inna finally tries to have a serious talk with Mitia. She sits on the floor and explains that it’s time for her to return to the hospital for more repairs on her car accident injury, and time for him to stay with Olga and Sergei for a while. A Hollywood child would look up with misting eyes and say “I love you, Mommy.” But Mitia, like any kid faced with frightening news, goes right on fidgeting with his action figures and truck/monster sound effects. Inna keeps prompting him to stop playing and to listen and look at her. Finally she becomes angry, thinking that his compulsive playtime indicates casual unconcern. Mitia in turn bursts out that she is only sending him away to sell him for his organs, as some other mother did in a news report on TV. “Don’t scare me!” he insists, and as she grabs him to pull him closer he knocks her aside and flees the room.
But later as she tucks him in, they talk things over. She lets him know that Sergei bought him a bicycle and will teach him to ride. She also promises that even if Mitia can’t see her, “I’ll be beside you.” Then she watches her child sleep, stroking his hair, gazing at the features of his face.
Mitia rides away with Olga and Sergei, giving Inna one of his monsters as a goodbye gift. Inna sits alone in her room surrounded by a mess of bedclothes and games and spilled snacks, holding the monster toy, watering her dying plant, taking off the headscarf at last to reveal her stitches and scars.
The doorbell rings. It’s volunteer Sveta, here to help out.
Inna turns her need for home health care into yet another joke, one that rings like a Zen koan. “Are you Sveta? Are you from Hospice? Are you here for Inna? Oh, she died yesterday. Just kidding!! Come on in.”
The two women sit down together. Sveta is all neat conscientiousness, attempting to ask questions, take notes, be a good caseworker, create order in the overspilling chaos of the little apartment while Inna clowns around.
Their litany of mutual interruptions knits itself into a comfortable rhythm as Sveta catches Inna from falling, and the women hold on to each other in a cautious clasp that finally relaxes as they merge energies and personal space. In a film collage of the next few days the soundtrack slips in music to good effect (a melody line much like Pachelbel’s Canon) as Sveta watches TV with Inna on the double bed, wraps her up for a slow careful walk step by step on the street, shares a long handclasp in closeup, spoon-feeds her bites of soup, and dances with her in the kitchen on New Year’s Eve. Incidental note: the song they sing together is “Моей душе покоя нет (No Rest For My Soul).” Russians would recognize this from a scene in the classic 1977 comedy film Служебный роман, or Office Romance. Inna’s circumstances give the sprightly song a much more wistful tone:
No rest for my soul; all day I wait for someone.
Sleepless, I meet the dawn — and all because of someone.
Someone isn’t here with me. Oh, where to find him!
I can travel the world over, just to find someone….
I swear I’d give up everything under the sun
Mitia drops by one last time to fix Inna a battered little sandwich in bed, which she pretends to eat with great gusto. When he leaves she cries. This must be the most convincing gut-wrenching cry in any movie anywhere as Inna gags on her grief, cramming into her mouth a whole desperate fistful of brilliantly colored medications spilling to the floor. Then with her remaining energy she gets herself to the DVD player, and pops in the adoption promotional tape of her son at his most joyful.
She watches him in spellbound wonder, weeping herself into a long siege of belly laughter.
“Inna!” Sveta calls out next morning, letting herself in.
“It’s me. Sveta. You should see what fragrant apples I’ve bought!” She looks around. “Inna? Iiiiin! Iiiiin!” Then she stops calling and in silence searches faster, into the bathroom and out again.
Here again the film passes up a chance at drama to end up with something real. As Sveta halts outside the bathroom and stares at the floor, the camera stops with her as she sinks to her knees. In silence it stays focused on her face in its shock, bewilderment, disbelief, and dawning anguish.
But Mitia is away now, safe in his new life in a beautiful roomy well-lighted clean house with real meals and two calm healthy devoted even-tempered parents. Spring arrives as he sails off happily on his new bicycle. Sergei does just what Inna did until her strength was gone: he runs and runs and runs alongside the bicycle holding on to keep his son safe until the boy picks up speed.
Then he lets him go.