16 years old, living somewhere in what once was the Soviet Union, Lilja is abandoned as her mother and her new husband move to the United States. Alone, without a job or an education, she is taken advantage of by relatives who use what little material resources she had, and is eventually relegated to living in a tiny, drab apartment without electricity or heat, and to selling her body for money. But all is not without hope - she befriends a boy, two years younger than her, who is also abandoned by his family and seeks companionship and affection, and a curious relationship forms between them. Later, she also meets another man, a bit older than her, who becomes her boyfriend and who promises her a new life in Sweden.
A curious mix of naiveté and intelligence, both ressourceful and vulnerable, brash yet inherently good, Lilja is a fully-developed character we immediately understand and care for, and Oksana Akinshina's luminous performance (the best I've seen this year, so far) brings all the complexities of the character to evocative life. The film is also brilliant because of how convincingly it illustrates both Lilja's tragic descent into poverty and slavery and the fact that she never loses her dignity and sense of self. Every step in the gradual journey of her life is convincing and honest. We can understand her actions, and because we care for her so much, we become implicated in them, both emotionally and morally.
One of the film's most revealing scenes comes when Lilja is browsing through a high-class Western airport store not unlike those many of us frequent - after the drab, poverty-stricken environment of her home, the store is as jarring to us as it is to her. This scene also serves to illustrate Moodysson's directorial style, which is ever-present yet totally immersed in the story, and which brings the script to life with a style so honest, compassionate, and unselfish that when combined with Akinshina's performance, it allows the film to achieve a lyricism of great and heartbreaking power.
Lilja 4-Ever is a great film, the best I've seen in the first half of 2002, and it stands as an important film, a must-see, both in and of itself, because of its relevant, powerful content, and as an exercise in honest, humane filmmaking.
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