One of the things I love about cinema is that, like any art form, it evolves and changes with the times. It is interesting, as a student of queer cinema history, to compare and contrast films of similar messages made in different decades. I often wonder if films made in the eighties or nineties could be even remotely successful today. For example, Go Fish, which I sincerely loved when I saw it on first release, could not be made today and attract the same passionate audience. It was a product of its own time.
Sonja feels like it was made at least a decade too late. Billed as a "coming of age" drama, the plotline can be all-too-neatly summarised in one sentence: Sonja is a girl who one summer realises she's in love with her best friend. If you think you've seen that film before, you'd be right, and not just in gay films. It's a classic conundrum that has faced real life and fictional teens for as long as anyone can remember. The problem is, that isn't enough to sustain a ninety-minute film. At least, not anymore.
Any respectable modern audience would be entitled to expect a twist. We could be forgiven for asking, "and then she does what?" All movies need a hook, something that propels us along a journey with the characters. In this day and age that hook can't just be "she thinks she might be gay." Queer cinema has come further than that. The something else can come from the plot or from the characters themselves, but it needs to be there. The ending can be depressing, personally I love sad stories, but the character needs to have progressed somehow.
Liimatainen seems to have not asked herself some fundamental questions. She has not asked, what makes Sonja, of all teenagers, so special that audiences will want to share her experience? What makes her family situation unique? What makes Julia, this girl she loves, so worthy (or unworthy) of her love? All we can say about Sonja is that she's sad. And sullen. Sure, that's what teenagers sometimes are, but why do I need to watch a film about it where the character seems to learn nothing from her experience?
You see, even if Sonja had been made in 1996 instead of 2006, I'm still not at all convinced it would have been a very good film. I just think it would not have suffered quite so badly by comparison to all the better coming of age dramas we've seen in the past ten years (see All Over Me, or Fucking Åmål). Sonja is boring. Her parents are one-dimensional jerks. The girl she loves is exasperating and a rotten tease, but yet still not very interesting. The man she eventually sleeps with for no conceivable reason is ugly, old and uncharismatic. This film is so thin, it's starving.
Unfortunately it isn't just the script that suffers from malnourishment. The film is visually bland, and even when the story moves from the city, to a sports camp, to the beach and back again, there are not enough visual cues to allow us to fill in the holes in the screenplay. The colours are washed out and uninspiring, for no particular reason other than Sonja is sad, so must the film's world be sad. Some vague attempts at symbolism (Sonja's penchant for running away to water in an effort to wash herself clean for example) are buried amongst inexplicably random scenes that serve no purpose. Sometimes the scenes made so little sense I was beginning to wonder if the subtitles had been badly translated.
The most frustrating visual aspect of the film is the way the camera lingers for too long on scenes that at first have some potential for poignancy, but are dragged out so long they become monotonous. Even scenes that contain some heat and drama fizzle after the first ten seconds into nothingness. The camera stays perfectly still, presumably attempting to capture longing through stillness, but the actors just aren't gifted enough to carry this weight, no matter how hard they try.
Some viewers might find some elements of truth in Sonja's story. After all, some aspects of teenage angst never really change with the times. We all struggle with first love, and losing our virginity, and communicating with often distant and out of touch parents. These are things anyone can relate to, and they aren't unique to the gay experience either. Trouble is, I've seen this film before - in gay and straight cinema - done in a thousand more interesting ways.
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As a final note, does anyone else absolutely LOATHE when film marketing people use the word "sapphic" in film tag lines? As in "A young girl's sapphic awakening"? People, get a grip and discover the word lesbian already. It's like they're trying to sneak the lesbian content under the radar without anyone noticing. <end rant>