'Mellow Mud': Seattle International Film Festival movie review
In short: Seventeen-year-old Raya (Elina Vaska) and her younger brother have no idea where their mother has gone, so they live with their grandmother in rural Latvia. But when the grandmother suddenly dies, Raya is forced to become the adult in her household - otherwise they will be forced to live in an orphanage.
The formula for any great film is simple: a clear premise and legitimate stakes. "Mellow Mud" wonderfully layers a compelling drama about a pair of kids forced to fend for themselves with a coming-of-age story about a girl thrust into adulthood. Raya and her brother must keep up the ruse that their grandmother is alive. While they prove themselves capable enough to fend off a social worker and keep the townsfolk away from the truth, their immaturity proves to be their biggest hurdle. Raya shouldn't have to worry about her brother's grades or fret about how she is going to put food on the table - let alone her own growth from adolescent to adult as she engages in her first real relationship.
The key to "Mellow Mud" is Vaska's incredible performance, which is reminiscent of Jennifer Lawrence in "Winter's Bone." Raya is a product of her environment - she is strong and defiant by necessity. Whereas many of her immature classmates would be wholly ill-equipped to take on the challenges Raya faces, Vaska also infuses the high school girl with a vulnerability, intelligence, decisiveness and pragmatism beyond her years. She proves herself street smart enough to keep her household running, yet the film also reminds the audience that Raya is not yet emotionally mature. Vaska is understated, yet she clearly conveys exactly what Raya is thinking at any given moment.
While Raya's classmates playfully horse around in music class, it's clear she has no bandwidth for such frivolity. Her brother acts out in ways that denote a child wanting to act grown up while her absent mother literally abandoned her maternal duties. "Mellow Mud" beautifully layers in subtle contrasts to Raya's (somewhat involuntary) journey into responsibility and adulthood.
Final verdict: Elina Vaska is an absolute revelation in this coming-of-age drama - she deftly embodies a resourceful spitfire, a girl in love and a maternal figure to her brother - all wrapped up in one richly defined character.
"Mellow Mud" screens at SIFF 2017. This Latvian drama is unrated and has a running time of 110 minutes.