Review: ‘Stop-Zemlia’ gets in touch with teen angst and ennui, Ukraine-style

Two teen girls sit in a classroom.
Yana Isaienko, left, and Maria Fedorchenko in the movie “Stop-Zemlia.”
(Altered Innocence)
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Ukrainian filmmaker Kateryna Gornostai turns to her teenage years, in all their feelings, friendship and fumbling, for her directorial debut, “Stop-Zemlia,” an immersive portrait of high school life, that time when young adults muddle through the process of becoming themselves.

Opening with a series of portraits of her teenage characters pulled from documentary-style interviews peppered throughout the film, the narrative zeroes in on Masha (Maria Fedorchenko), one of the kids on the outside of the popular gang, who finds tight-knit companionship with her two best friends, Yana (Yana Isaienko) and Senia (Arsenii Markov). This trio is often nihilist about the state of the world, but Masha has a comfortable life. She experiences the kind of universal teen angst that stems from her unrequited longing for connection, belonging and, of course, the cute boy in class, Sasha (Oleksandr Ivanov).


It’s tempting to compare “Stop-Zemlia” to the HBO series “Euphoria,” as these teens also wear colorful makeup and experiment with drinking, drugs, sex and self-harm (the one main difference: gun-safety classes to prepare for military training). But there’s something rather innocent about this depiction, which isn’t trying to be a scandalous or searing portrait of youth but to create an emotionally authentic representation of this hypercharged and sensitive age.

Emotional and subjective realism takes precedence in this otherwise naturalistic and observational film. Gornostai threads moments of magical, dreamlike surrealism when Masha finds herself daydreaming or dissociating, imagining herself playing badminton on a theater stage, or watching sparkly black ooze drip out of a self-inflicted slash on her wrist.

At times, “Stop-Zemlia” (the name of a game they play that’s a cross between tag and Marco Polo) feels a bit long, but it’s a pleasure to simply spend time in this world with these characters, to feel so deeply what they do. At the end of the movie, Masha asks the documentarian in the film, “Do you feel connected to your emotional state when you were my age?” The sensually crafted “Stop-Zemlia” is a fine conduit to bring forth those visceral sense memories of teenage life.


In Ukrainian with English subtitles

Not rated

Running time: 2 hours, 2 minutes

Playing: Starts Jan. 21, Laemmle Glendale; also on VOD