Director: Boris Khlebnikov and Alexei Popogrebsky

Russia| 2003. English subtitles. Colour. 105 min.

Gracefully composed and moving yet never maudlin, Koktebel represents a most auspicious feature debut for its two young Russian co-directors, Boris Khlebnikov and Alexei Popogrebsky, whose only previous films are their co-directed shorts. In less talented hands, the simple plot could have turned into just another road movie about a father and son slowly making their way by foot, boxcar and thumbed rides to the seaside city of the title. Instead, the directors’ taut script, skill with performers and loving eye for natural beauty create a film that, in its best moments, recalls vintage Terrence Malick.
The first reel sets up the story, tone and texture nicely. The protagonists, unnamed throughout and called simply ‘the father’ (Igor Chernevich) and ‘the son’ (Gleb Puskepalis) in the closing credits, emerge from a storm drain shelter at dawn carrying tatty camping gear. Their destination, a Crimean resort town, and the strained nature of their relationship is roughed in with a few economical exchanges.
As father and son dally with various strangers, their backstory emerges. The death of the boy’s mother exacerbated the father’s drinking problem, leading him to lose his job (he had been an aviation engineer) and then the family flat in Moscow. With nothing left to lose, they’re migrating south but Dad’s in no special hurry to get there.
Arresting visuals and spaced-out, dreamy atmosphere are the film’s strongest suit, recalling ’70s Malick in the use of long-shot vistas and nature close-ups, sparse musical arrangements, and the alternation between movement and becalmed quietude. But Koktebel also has its own unique set of tricks, employing striking point of view shots, aerial views, and weird set-ups that offer splendid studies of the backs of people’s heads, as if the audience is perpetually watching people leave until we reach the end of the road.

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