Director: Anna Kazejak
With a script that’s disquietingly permeated with the depersonalising effects of technology-based communication, the moody and immersive Polish teen drama The Word is a darkly compelling neo-noir for our emotionally disconnected times, implicitly suggesting the dangerous consequences that come with stamping out the nuance and warmth of human interaction while draining the words we say of their immediate sense of consequentiality.
But thanks to the compassionate and patiently perceptive direction of Anna Kazejak, even this intriguing thematic thread is secondary to the film’s most absorbing function as an empathetic character study that ties these insights on the cold, alienating nature of digital communication to the guarded and anxious perspective of the young Lila. Kazejak’s semi-subjective chronicling of this reticent yet socially abrasive individual’s experiences over a short and nerve-racking period serves as a layered and engrossing encapsulation of a naïve and nervously charged psychology. It’s only when The Word strays from the claustrophobic viewpoint of its lead that it loses dramatic momentum.
We first encounter Lila in a typically fretful state as she paces her room waiting for her boyfriend Janek to answer her call. The two of them end up speaking via Skype, at which point Lila scolds Janek for making out with another girl at their school before hanging up. Janek proceeds to send a series of pleading, frequently all-caps messages via Skype chat, to which Lila responds with the cold ultimatum that he has 24 hours to ‘get rid of her’. This 3-minute introductory scene sows the seeds for a terrible incident that manifests horror at its most unnervingly banal and eventually sees Lila’s callous words turned against her.
Pivoting its drama around this single, shocking event, The Word is at its most richly beguiling in the tense build-up, rather than the sobering aftermath. Klaudiusz Dwulit’s moody, enticingly textured cinematography proves particularly appealing in the first half hour as the film quietly establishes an aura of ominous mystery and apprehension in the streets, woodlands and school hallways of Lila’s town. Once the critical moment has occurred, the film’s remaining hour holds a blunter appeal, but one that largely succeeds in maintaining its visceral grip.
In any case, the film’s primary strength lies in the adeptness with which it establishes and maintains the uneasy mindset of its tightly wound protagonist, capturing the persistently on-edge atmosphere that pervades many a personal high school experience. This is that rare teen film that doesn’t take your typical antisocial adolescent demeanour as a mere unscrutinised assumption, but instead regards with sincerity the emotional factors behind this insecure front. A brief but telling early scene sees Lila step into a school cubicle simply to catch her breath in a momentary respite from near-omnipresent eyes. Later, an evening of drinking, smoking and generally letting loose with friends only compounds and emphasises Lila’s exhausting and alienated state as she stands awkwardly amongst her young, lively peers, compliantly going where the others go as she hides behind a limp smile.
In some ways, Lila could be regarded as a potent embodiment of teenage rage and anxiety repressed to the point where perilous and confused ideas can ripen in isolation, making it a moment of powerful catharsis when Lila finally blows her lid in a furious response to the constabulary walls closing in on her. In scenes shared with her separated parents – which range from Lila aggressively daring her mother to hit her a second time, to a rare display of warmth as she embraces her oft-absent father – we see a desire in Lila to be cared for, disciplined and saved from her own decisions, raising the question of whether Lila, in her overdue moment of emotional eruption, is on some level relieved to finally have an excuse to let her defences fall.
This momentous outpouring of selfish fury and blind panic might have made for a worthy climax to The Word, but instead the film makes the curious and misguided choice of devoting much of its final ten minutes to exploring some alternative perspectives in greater depth. Here, we stray at last from the perceptual peripheries of Lila to observe the corresponding conflicts occurring amongst the perplexed and distraught parents of the teens, inadvertently concluding the film on a relatively limp note.
These scenes, in which adults reflect and argue over where they went wrong and who’s to blame, are perfectly interesting in their own right, and may have served as a welcome change of pace had they been placed just a little earlier in the runtime or interwoven more neatly with the scenes of Lila, who spends a good deal of the film’s final stretch off-camera. But to frame this section as the drama’s final point of culmination seems like a misjudgement of what’s been keeping us so invested all this time.
More so than its headline-friendly, parent-spooking story of teen tragedy, it is the lonely inner journey of the film’s central character that makes The Word such an engaging, if imperfect, viewing experience, and the 80-plus minutes in which Kazejak manages to envelope us in Lila’s richly revealing, socially resonant reality are more than enough to make up for this slight stumble before the finish line.