Reviews Short Narrative

Either Way (2023) – 2 stars

Director: Nina Grigorova

Writer: Nina Grigorova

Cast: Darina Toneva & Nina Grigorova

Running time: 11mins

In her description of Either Way, first-time filmmaker Nina Grigorova promises a film in which “days blur into one” and, for better or worse, she has delivered that. As the credits roll, it certainly feels as though it took a lot longer than 11 minutes to get where it was going. Large passages of time spent wandering through unpopulated wilderness may be cheap, but they are not exactly engaging viewing. Neither are montages of job applications, or university prospectuses; especially not in a film which is seemingly trying to transport us to a fantasy world.

The film centres on Katerina (Darina Toneva), who finds herself exasperated at one of life’s most infamous crossroads: what the hell to do with her life after secondary education ends. It largely falls on Toneva to carry the film, as the only presence on screen for its majority – and that is not an easy task at the best of times.

Ultimately, the character doesn’t give the audience an awful lot to connect with, and so the film’s central premise also falls short. It’s hard to care whether someone decides to go to university or look for work, when the only emotional output from that person is a mixture of mild irritation and boredom.

Toneva’s performance, or at least the audience’s perception of it, is possibly hobbled by the lack of range expected of her. Daniel Kaluuya received similar criticisms for his performance in Nope – “he looks like he doesn’t want to be there” etc – but his turn ultimately works because there are brief moments where he is allowed to amp up his expression, and in those moments we understand he must really be going through it. But Grigorova’s script doesn’t really seem to give Toneva those opportunities to hit those vital peaks – this is almost all valley.

When Katerina’s mother calls her to discuss concerns about her future, Katerina’s eye-rolling reaction is little different to her withering reaction to being transported to a magical forest which apparently has no exit. That’s the kind of situation where you need to push your lead to emote a little more than briefly raising her voice, before huffing “this isn’t happening to me” and sitting down to read a book in a sunny glade.

The tonal plateau the film is stuck in is not aided by an absence of any kind of perceivable threat. Apparently, Katerina’s lack of action in her ordinary life has led to the fantastical scenario of being trapped in an ancient and deserted woodland. She will only get to leave once she learns to trust herself – but there isn’t anything Labyrinth­-style otherworldly challenge to overcome to demonstrate her learning that. Even if there wasn’t some monstrous entity standing in metaphorically for Katerina’s real-world shortcomings, at least some effort could have been made to make the forest look a little more like a shadowy netherworld you’d be keen to escape, and less like a nice place to take a midday nap.

In the film’s climactic sequence, Grigorova herself turns up, as a ‘future version’ of Katerina, to spell out the key lesson for her past self. There is a slight issue here, in that the two actors don’t look that much alike, and they aren’t that far removed from each other in terms of age – so it’s a bit of a jump to believe they are one and the same person. But in an independent film of limited means, that’s a forgivable piece of ‘movie magic’ that most audiences will be happy to suspend disbelief for.

That’s especially the case because the message that this mechanism is being deployed for is disarmingly sweet. In the end, Katerina tells herself, it doesn’t matter which path she chooses, as long as she stays true to herself. People can find many ways to be happy and live fulfilled lives, with or without going to school, by travelling or staying put.

It’s nicely removed from the ‘believe in yourself and anything is possible’ propaganda many more films like this would try to rush through in their closing phases – because frankly in a world where so many privileges and prejudices still determine ‘success’ irrespective of individual ability, claiming we are the sole masters of our own fate is as disingenuous as it is damaging. Suggesting that things in the life ahead of Katerina may not always fit with one pre-determined pathway to success, but that she can still find peace and happiness whatever the outcome, exhibits an emotional maturity worthy of praise.

It would just be better if that conclusion came after some more explicit difficulties, rather than being raced through in the final moments of a film which devoted sizeable chunks of its run-time to aimlessly wandering through a deserted wood.

Budget and time are always things that can stand in the way of independent filmmakers attempting a grand fantasy narrative. But I do feel there was room in Either Way to do a little more. With some ingenuity and imagination, the artists involved could have afforded to be more ambitious than their end-product suggests they were.

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