Berlinale 2019 Review: Acid (Alexander Gorchilin)

The emptiness of youthful existence and the generational conflicts between children and parents. Alexander Gorchilin’s debut feature Acid, playing this Berlinale in the Panorama sidebar, does not exactly tread new paths but offers a stylish look into the world of the young Russian bourgeoisie, handsomely shot but ultimately, much like its protagonists, without a clear sense of direction. It is not that the film has nothing to offer, and the young actor-turned-director shows promise at the tender age of 26, but the purpose of the film feels as absent as the purpose in the lives of its protagonists. “You know what our problem is? The fact that we don’t have problems,” says one of Acid‘s characters. That is a good thematic summation of the film as well.

If you want to jump, jump.” In the opening scene a stark naked young man jumps from his apartment balcony, out of his mind on the titular drug. It is certainly not what his friend Pete (Alexander Kuznetsov) expected, and losing a common friend is going to put a test on the relationship of Pete and his best friend Sasha (Filipp Avdeev). Following the funeral they go out clubbing, and after a night of drugs and alcohol find themselves on the couch of artist Vasilisk (Savva Saveliev). He creates sculptures by dipping his father’s Soviet-era statues in (actual) acid. The next morning Pete finds the acid, and in a drug-induced haze puts the bottle to his lips.

From here on the lives of the two friends drift apart as much as their lives just drift. Sasha becomes the focal point of the film as he has to deal with problems with both his girlfriend and her younger sister Karina (Arina Shevtsova), but also at home with his mother (Alexandra Rebenok) who has just come home after a few months abroad. From time to time he checks in with Pete who has a hard time dealing with the suicide that started the film. What they share is the absence of a father. What they lack is stability and a life that aims for something. And neither money nor faith can give them a purpose, something to cling to.

As an image of post-communist Russia, three decades after the collapse of the former empire, the sobering Acid is an interesting document. Vasilisk’s sculptures are a nice if somewhat obvious metaphor for this: Soviet strength melted away. But Gorchilin never truly digs deeper. These youngsters are Russia’s future, but what does that mean for Russia’s future? Easy escape into alcohol and drugs doesn’t hide the fact that neither state nor church nor wealth can give direction, but just showing that gives the film a fleeting character with little forward thinking and no true insight into what the effect on Russia will be in the long run. Nor does it give a truly enlightening idea on the causes of this empty state of affairs, and how Russia’s middle-class youth could have come to this. The fact that both Sasha and Pete come from broken families, with fathers absent and mothers more concerned with their own affairs, is hardly a groundbreaking idea and not a true answer. “Dedicated to mums and dads” reads a title card at the end, which suggests Gorchilin does not blame the older generation, yet his story seems to suggest otherwise, if not fully then at least in part.

Still, this lack of vision should not detract from regarding Acid as an interesting time capture of the state of a country that is still reeling from a monumental shakeup even after more than a quarter of a century. And Gorchilin does show a good eye, which is a surprising talent for an actor, as actors who move to a place behind the camera often tend to focus on what they know best. Cinematographer Kseniya Sereda’s cool and clear widescreen shots evoke a sense of emotional desolation that serves the film’s somber undercurrent well. The cast is also uniformly believable in their roles, with Shevtsova a standout. Acid may not have much to ponder or even say, but it does have much to show and tell. A little more insight would have been welcome, but as a debut feature the film is a promising start for Gorchilin.