There is something enchanting about the lighting of teenagers’ bedrooms. The teenage bedroom is a cultural icon, immediately recognisable, normally littered with posters or placards, either a mess or completely pristine - but I've always found the lighting to be an unappreciated aspect. To this day, the only thing that makes me sad in my childhood bedroom is the Big Light. Most of my house has changed since I moved away, but my room has remained, tungsten bulb and all. It hangs from my ceiling; golden and warm and somehow painfully nostalgic. Under that light, teenage me felt the weight of the world; everything was so monumentally unfair, and time seemed to go so slowly.
In Stop-Zemlia, the thoughtful feature debut from Kateryna Gornostai, lights are important. The film follows Masha, Yana and Senia most closely, and they spend a lot of time in Masha’s bedroom. It is backlit by yellows and reds, vibrant but peaceful. In these moments the camera is close, included in the conversation but never invasive. The room serves as a safe space amongst the liminality of teenage life, where they bicker and bond, always together.
There is little structure to Stop-Zemlia, which instead elects simply to follow a class of high school students through their final months together. Blurring the boundary between fiction and documentary, Gornostai tells her story through a mix of narrative and talking heads. It is a love letter to young love and friendship, without concerning itself with crafting relatable characters. Her cast do that for her, with skillfully improvised dialogue and incredibly natural chemistry. It is simple yet sometimes surreal, muddling reality with fantasy, much like the experience of growing up.
Due to her lack of concern for delving deep into the film’s subjects, Gornostai flits between various details that illustrate this phase of our lives, each one contributing to a whole product that feels careful and considerate. Some are left hanging and without closure, leaving them lost and the film somewhat directionless. She approaches mental illness in an offhand way that doesn’t provide a resolution, and instead treats self-harm like a typical part of any teenager’s experience. The crossover of narrative with documentary-style interviews lends the film some context, though, as Masha and her peers explain their struggles with eloquence: the sensation of love, their anxieties, fear of the future.
Stop-Zemlia’s central trio is captivating, their chemistry means you're left missing them when they're not onscreen. This isn’t to disregard the brilliance of the whole ensemble, who each have a part to play in the dynamic group. Together, they perfectly capture the awkwardness of those classmate interactions that are unlike any other relationship in life. We share a lot of our fundamental years with these peers, and so become tied to them.
I asked my mum, once, whether she still knew all her classmates from school. Of course she didn’t, she said; there were probably hundreds, how was she ever meant to stay in contact with all of them? The idea that I would forget the names of the people I saw every day was unfathomable to me As I grew up I soon realised that there is obviously no feasible way to keep track of the three hundred people from my year at secondary school. But when you’re there, with all of them, every day, how could you ever see life being any different?
In Stop-Zemlia the desperation to get away from those people, without knowing how far you can really go once it’s all over. In its long, expansive takes, it grapples with that horrible, unexplainable ache that comes with leaving. Now, five years after leaving school, I speak to two, maybe three of the people I knew back then, but I remember quite a few of the rest. I miss the feeling of the collective, because we all spent such important years with each other and I will likely never see most of them again.
It’s a feeling that is entirely useless and so frustrating, and my memory of that last year at school is tainted with it. Leaving felt so unbearably far away, and yet too near; I wanted more time, but also to leave without ever looking back. As I’ve grown up I’ve come to hate those moments of limbo; at school it went on forever, waiting for everything to end. Now, it’s the days I leave for uni after visiting home. It is a hideous gnawing sensation, knowing an end is coming without a switch to flick to move it along and bypass the waiting. In Stop-Zemlia, Masha, Yana and Senia have each other, and likely will for a long time, but their lives are also defined by the peers they try so hard to distinguish themselves from. No matter how much you profess to dislike them, detaching yourself upon leaving feels horrible.
Gornostai observes the trials of high school without passing judgement, and is never patronising in the way that other filmmakers examining young people sometimes are. Instead she encourages her cast along with little interference, expertly capturing the universal complications of their age and all the new sensations that accompany it. Their experience is handled sensitively, with focus on them only amplified by their surroundings, whether it be the buzzing electronic score, the warmth of Masha’s bedroom, or when the iridescent disco lights in the hall when the realisation hits that this is the end.