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Gang Up


The Hill Where Lionesses Roar (2021)

The awkward title might sound better in the original Albanian. The lionesses are three poor, socially outcast 18-year-olds in an Albanian-speaking village in Kosovo, impatiently kicking their heels as they wait to discover if they have passed their college entrance exams. Education is the only ticket out, and they are desperate for its escape; no country will give them visas without an education, and none of them want to spend their lives in their backwater town, cleaning toilets or cutting hair like their mothers. They have ambitions but no one else has any of these things for them. But as the summer passes their dreams alter, twisting a coming-of-age story into something else altogether.

Jeta (Urate Shabani) is an orphan who hides from her disgusting guardian by spending most of her time at her parents’ grave. Qe (pronounced Che) (Flaka Latifi) has an abusive father and a depressed hairdresser of a mother who mocks her ambitions. Li (Era Balaj) has a car and a caring mother, but also no dad and three little brothers whose needs mean Li has to fend for herself. Their friendship is of the genuine kind rarely seen in cinema – they clearly like each other and enjoy being together. No Stockholm syndrome here. They have a kind of clubhouse in a half-built house next to Jeta’s cemetery; they hang up a hammock, hide their treasures in the walls, and escape there when it all gets to be too much. They don’t have phones or jobs, so time hangs heavily but the pacing doesn’t drag. Their friendship is about raising each other up. When Li gets a boyfriend, Zem (Andi Bajgora), he’s simply folded into the gang. There’s no jealousy and none of misbehavior American cinema has taught us to expect from this choice. But Zem has some nasty acquaintances who don’t like the girls, and an unpleasant encounter in the abandoned swimming pool where they play kickabout leaves them all reeling. But it also gives them all a pretty good idea. Well, at least at first.

Writer-director Luàna Bajrami – who was only 20 herself when the movie was made – is absolutely sensational at creating the us-against-the-world mood that barrels the movie through its first half. But when the consequences of the summer’s choices start to pile up that lack of maturity becomes the movie’s biggest flaw. When things go well no one has the wit to make the most of it, and when things go wrong everyone is blindsided – unfortunately that goes for the plot (which owes a large debt to Harmony Korine) as well as the characters. It means the final act is a slow fizzling out, which takes longer than the story’s momentum can maintain. There’s rarely such an obvious cause and effect. It’s such a shame. Li’s sweet demeanor hides an iron will; Qe’s melodramatic tendencies and quick anger hides a roaring intellect; and Jeta’s bone-deep sorrow and fear have curdled a clever, cheerful mind. They deserve more than this. When we revisit the movie in 20 years we’ll have a deep appreciation for beauty of the current moment but plenty of regrets for the banality of the choices made. A lot like everyone’s youth, really.


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