When a couple of teens in the remarkable documentary "Something Better to Come" dream aloud about getting out of "this dump," they're not indulging in adolescent hyperbole. Just a few miles outside Moscow, the place they call home is Europe's largest junkyard, an end-of-the-world landscape where castoffs — things and people alike — collect and are forgotten.
But filmmaker Hanna Polak, working over 14 years, has created a chronicle not easily forgotten. Her eloquent portrait of life in the Svalka, as the garbage dump is called, is also a coming-of-age story centering on Yula — pretty, tough and determined to beat the odds.
Ten years old when shooting begins, Yula wishes her widowed mother would stop drinking. Three years later, she's sharing the bottle with the grown-ups, huddled in a makeshift shack surrounded by mountains of trash. She's also thinking about a "normal" life, one that isn't controlled by illegal recycling enterprises that pay her and other scavengers terrible wages, usually in vodka.
But even while longing to escape harsh and primitive circumstances, Yula understands that the strong sense of community she knows is rarely experienced on the outside. A visit to her grandfather when she's 16 and in particular need provides a brutal illustration of the point.
Beyond her tenacious and intimate reporting, director and cinematographer Polak has made a work of powerful images — heart-rending, elegiac, charged with hope. Amid the changing seasons and the relentless influx of refuse, Yula grows up, faster than most. She sees past the battered adults' fatalism. When this gripping film leaves her, at age 24, she's done more than merely endure.
"Something Better to Come." No MPAA rating. In Russian with subtitles. Running time: 1 hour, 34 minutes. Playing: Laemmle's Town Center 5, Encino.