Sunday, May 23, 2010

Review - The Happiest Girl in the World (Cea mai fericita fata din lume)

"My name is Delia Cristina Fratila and I am the luckiest, happiest girl in the world." We hear that line a lot in The Happiest Girl in the World, but every time Delia (Andreea Busneag) recites it, we can see the sadness that her beaming smile struggles to hide. Delia certainly should be happy, having won a prize by sending off orange juice labels, and being invited to Bucharest to appear in a TV commercial for the juice, where she will receive her brand new car. But her parents have already earmarked her car for sale, with the cash being far more useful to them than a vehicle to their daughter, and as the long, sweltering day wears on, the task of reshooting the commercial over and over again takes its toll on the unhappy teenager's emotions.

So begins Radu Jude's wry and witty film, the latest in the new wave of Romanian films to explore the state of the nation some two decades after the fall of communism. In the conflict between Delia and her parents (Vasile Muraru and Violeta Haret), Jude sets up a clash between old and new values. Delia wants to be free and independent, and to have a car that she can share with her friends when she goes to college, but her parents take a more pragmatic view, planning to use the cash from the sale of the car to convert their grandmother's home into a guesthouse. In a series of long arguments between Delia and her parents, the screenplay, by Jude and Augustina Stanciu, lays out the pros and cons of the situation, with the sullen youngster refusing to budge. The deft writing ensures their dialogue feels natural and sharp, with both parties completely believing that they are in the right and growing increasingly exasperated with the other's inability to see their point of view.

As Delia, Busneag is a real find in her first film role. Jude frequently shoots in isolation, capturing her in moments of repose, and allowing us to see her grapple with her dilemma away from her parents. She has a great ability to display her character's conflicting thoughts and emotions in her face, and she has the snap and conviction of a real moody teenager in her more argumentative moments. She also has to suffer stoically through the indignities of shooting the commercial, with the executives from the juice company openly discussing how frumpy she is, before the shoot is held up when one of them notices a faint trace of hair on her upper lip. Jude's depiction of the business of making television, particularly the bureaucracy of the company behind it, is sly and cynical.

It's also very funny in places, with the director finding ever more absurd ways to disrupt the shoot. First of all, Delia is told she is not reciting her line quickly enough. Then there's some debate about her clothing clashing with the blue screen background, the discovery that she doesn't hold a driver's licence, before someone finally decides the juice isn't showing up well enough on the camera, meaning Delia – who has already downed pints of the stuff – will have to drink a mixture of orange juice and coke, and still look happy about it. As we watch Delia persevere through the tedious stop-start of the day, with the knowledge that she may not even get her car at the end of it, the irony behind this sardonic movie's title becomes increasingly clear.