Review: Stilyagi

by Claire Owens

I absolutely adore this film.

Your eyes will need some serious adjusting after enduring just over two hours of a screen splashed with so much colour and life, you’d think a gumball machine exploded. Stilyagi hits the musical genre right on the nose with its Hairspray-esque look, feel and sound. The place is Russia. The year is 1955. The people are hipsters, giving a big “screw you” to the washed-out Soviets trying to suck the fun out of life. Valeriy Todorovsky’s film Stilyagi is a love story of two people, from two separate worlds whose values govern them to be apart – sound familiar? Enter the world of Mels, who after falling in love with a hipster named Polza, is determined to win her affection and in the process of doing so converts from his socialist mentality into a hipster.

I can honestly say I’ve never been more enthralled while watching a foreign film. Perhaps it was the film’s evidently Western premise or rather the unbelievably captivating cinematography. Yes, the subtitles are there for you to follow along, but it is somewhat impossible to simply stare at the bottom of the screen when so much colour and beauty is peeling your eyes away. Todorovsky’s creativity with angles and shots juxtapose the film with the quirky hipsters featured in it. It’s as if the language barrier is broken because the visuals lead you through the story. This is especially true in the musical numbers that pop up throughout the film. The songs are sung in Russian, yet the tunes are so catchy and the camera is so on beat with the choreography that I can guarantee you’ll find your head bobbing along. When Mels surprises Polly on stage with a song and his saxophone, heck, I was humming the tune for days! I had no idea what the words were of course, but I couldn’t help but be taken in by the music. Films like Stilyagi reinforce by belief that music truly is a universal language. The combination of reading English subtitles, hearing Russian lyrics, and bouncing to the beat, uses so many senses at once it is hard not to become completely immersed. You feel like it speaks to you individually – even only for a few minutes.

I find it ironic that while watching the film I felt like I was being educated on Russia, yet the premise of it was that the characters were denying this culture in an attempt to immerse themselves in a different one, an American one, or what they thought it was at the time. It takes place entirely in Russia yet it’s based on an infatuation with another place. I thought that was a twisted yet interesting concept, that is, to idolize and internalize a place the majority of them have never been. To fulfill their fantasy they create their own space of freedom and safety within another. You’ll meet Fred, who is the one character who does make this dream a reality. Fred jumps at the opportunity to go work in America and when he returns to Russia, he informs Mels that American life doesn’t look anything like what the hipsters think. How shocking would it be to find out your perception was so wrong? I don’t want to give away too much, but let’s just say the ending will tug at your heartstrings.

You should watch Stilyagi because it’s a striking and solemn story of human perception, deception and solidarity. It is a clear illustration that film is the heart of visual language, and it breaks any barrier believed to exist in foreign film. This film will make you excited about the diversity it has to offer in just one experience, and it will certainly make you realize that who you are, where you’re from and what you want to be has endless possibilities.

There are essentially no trailers with English subtitles, so you’ll have to sit through the Russian one, but I assure you it won’t even matter!