Duration: 94 minutes
Writer/Director: Karin Heberlein
Actors: Anja Gada, Jana Sekulovska, Rabea Lüthi
By Caz Armstrong
This thoughtful and poetic coming of age drama looks at the painful crossroads of childhood and adulthood for three teenage girls.
Sami (Anja Gada), Joe (Rabea Lüthi) and Leyla (Jana Sekulovska) are 15-year old girls on their last day of school. Full of optimism and laughter, the world is their oyster. As they start on this new journey in life they soon discover that the world is less forgiving and supportive than they hoped. As each girl takes the first step on their paths towards adulthood they face instability, threats, assault and predation. With their strained friendship the only thing holding them together, can they pull through?
This is the first feature film from Swiss director Karin Heberlein whose observational style pulls the audience into the world of these girls. Her empathetic and relatable approach makes us really root for the girls and want them to make the best of their opportunities. So when things start to go awry we feel the wind being taken out of their sails quite acutely. Perhaps we recognise that feeling of meeting life’s obstacles and coming down with a crash.
The tone of the film shifts subtly but surely as each of the three girls start to face the problems of the adult world. We begin with sunshine, bright colours and an upbeat summer soundtrack as our trio strut out of school with confidence in their step, ready to take on the world. But as the film progresses the colours become more muted and the sun literally sets on them.
This isn’t a particularly bleak film though, as the central driving force is their friendship. This friendship is tested but becomes ever more vital in helping them weather devastating setbacks. It’s one thing to hang about after school together and it’s another to support each other through serious life events.
Comparisons with Deniz Gamze Ergüven’s powerful 2015 film “Mustang” are warranted. The two films share a poetic yet observational style and depict joyful girls coming of age into a world in which people will try to exploit and assault them. And in which sisterhood support is fundamental. Yet “Sami, Joe and I”(2021) is not a thoughtless copy, it stands on its own two feet and speaks with its own distinct voice on the subject.
The three central performances from Anja Gada, Jana Sekulovska and Rabea Lüthi are very strong for such young actors, and each character comes across as a very genuine run-of-the-mill teenager. They’re not rich kids with high expectations being knocked off their pedestals, and they’re not poor kids struggling to just survive. They occupy that middle ground. In that sense their stories are not exceptional, they’re facing the same cynical and predatory world that many people do.
This everyman approach, and the honest and accessible performances from the central trio meld perfectly with Heberlein’s directional style. While a couple of scenarios may stretch the bounds of most people’s experience, the result is a poignant and touching film that reflects on a specific time in life where the optimism of childhood meets the harsh reality of adulthood.