Unclenching the Fists: NYFF 2021 Review

Year: 2021

Runtime: 97 minutes

Director: Kira Kovalenko

Writers: Kira Kovalenko

Actors: Milana Aguzarova, Alik Karaev, Khetag Bibilov, Soslan Khugaev

By Tom Moore

Writer/director Kira Kovalenko’s sophomore feature, “Unclenching the Fists”, is a grounded coming of age tale of a young girl trying to break away from the damaging hold her family has on her.

Just within the first few moments of meeting timid and quiet Ada (Milana Aguzarova), it’s easy to feel how trapped she is within her family. Her father (Alik Karaev) holds a tight grip on her life leaving no options to leave and lead a life of her own. Her younger brother Dakko (Khetag Bibilov) attaches himself to her hip and perpetuates the belief that they cannot leave each other. The only one who presents a glimmer of individuality is her brother Akim (Soslan Khugaev) who has been away for quite some time making it hard for Ada to break out of the mold that she’s been forced into. However, Akim’s sudden return causes waves of conflict throughout Ada’s family causing deeper tension between Ada and her aching desires for freedom to reach a breaking point.

“Unclenching the Fists” has powerful elements to it that make it a coming-of-age tale of breaking past barriers and gaining control of your life. The tense and almost claustrophobic atmosphere of Ada’s life comes through well and Aguzarova’s performance embodies how this upbringing has made her closed-off and sort of afraid of leaving. Even when Akim initially comes back, Ada isn’t fully able to break free and only feels more unnerved by the growing tension between Akim and their father. It’s a solid build-up that leads to some interesting waves in her family’s dynamic as she begins to resist her father’s dictating and attempt to make her own choices going forward.

It’s not only interesting to see how her breaking out not only affects her father as he becomes ill, but also Dakko as he struggles with the idea of his family breaking apart and having to think for himself. Even for this being a momentous moment for Ada, it doesn’t come without hardships that reflect the tight grip Ada’s father had on her. Because of the submissive role she’s been shoved into in life and the lack of personable experience she has with other people, Ada is unfortunately subjected to a lot of tragedy and heartbreak that make her have a broken view of life. This causes Ada to understandably lash out towards her father in his weakened condition and creates a lot of tension that hinders her ability to move forward. However, the themes of letting go and moving past tragedy still come through in Ada’s story and there’s something touching about how Ada finds a way to move forward.

It’s just a shame these themes and Ada’s story aren’t always the easiest to absorb as the bleak atmosphere and aimlessness of the storytelling create a messy viewing experience. It makes sense that Ada’s story is told in such a bleak way given the environment she’s been raised in, but it’s so bleak that its almost devoid of emotion and can be tough to connect to at times. The narrative also feels totally aimless, so characters just jump in and out of Ada’s story and you never feel like you have a grip on what’s happening and the overall direction of the story. The script is also pretty light as a whole when it comes to characters other than Ada and it doesn’t really feel like we get conclusive arcs or time with understanding other characters.

Some of the camera work also feels a little messy and takes away from the impact of certain scenes where either the camera is too far away from what’s happening or at an angle that doesn’t make big moments, like a car crash, feel as impactful as they should. The final shot sequence of this movie is especially jarring because of how shaky and confusing it is and it muddies up the final impression of Ada breaking out. I’m sure there was some of type of subtle purpose or meaning behind it given its celebratory feel, but it barely translates and just leaves you puzzled.

“Unclenching the Fists’” central coming of age story still maintains its power through a strong performance from Aguzarova and the emotional weight of Ada’s story but ends up being tough to connect to because of some execution faults.

3 stars

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