Review: Rock Paper Grenade (Iryna Tsilyk)

“…charming and quirky dark comedy that uses a more lighthearted tone to conceal a much deeper meaning about the state of the world and the experiences of someone seeing a very different side of reality.”

When it comes to art based on real life, the more personal a story, the more effective it tends to be. This is certainly the case for Artem Chekh, the novelist and journalist whose experiences growing up in Ukraine in the early 1990s form the foundation for his autobiographical account of his upbringing Who Are You? recounting his childhood experiences with his own contemporary commentary. These poignant tales of childhood in post-Soviet Ukraine are sharply contrasted with his adult experiences that have recently seen him pause his writing career to fight in the ongoing war between Ukraine and Russia, dedicating his efforts to a conflict that continues to be a source of considerable tension on a global scale. His story has recently been adapted into Rock Paper Grenade, in which his partner Iryna Tsilyk (in her narrative feature film debut) creates a vibrant tapestry that combines his writing with more recent developments in his life. The film tells the story of “Tymophii” as he moves between childhood and adolescence, encountering many challenges as he learns about the world, especially after befriending a peculiar but intriguing older man whose entire life is shrouded in secrecy. This piques the young man’s curiosity and essentially inspires his distinct worldview, which has been condensed into this charming and quirky dark comedy that uses a more light-hearted tone to conceal a much deeper meaning about the state of the world and the experiences of someone seeing a very different side of reality.

Playfulness is a powerful artistic tool, especially when it comes to matters around social commentary. There is certainly no shortage of harrowing accounts of warfare and the psychological toll it has, both on those fighting these battles and those left behind to fend for themselves in changing social and cultural landscapes. The decision to configure Rock Paper Grenade as a slightly more upbeat (but not any less impactful) narrative assists in differentiating it from the abundance of other, similarly themed films, which are important but are often formulaic in the structure they follow. The majority of the film is a coming-of-age story where the main character comes to learn about his country’s violent past through interacting with people who had experienced it first-hand, including the mysterious veteran inserted into his life almost by fate. It offers a very different perspective on war and post-traumatic stress disorder, especially in how it explores the long-term effects and the domestic impact it has. Tsilyk structures the film as a coming-of-age tale, but one that aims to provide a unique perspective on Ukraine, using the main character as a guide through the years, the story developing and becoming more complex as he matures. It’s an intriguing concept that the director explores through carefully piecing together many different elements that ultimately tell a much deeper story, one that paints a portrait of a more idealistic (but not unrealistic) version of the Ukraine of the past, in comparison to the current state of the country which continues to shift as time progresses.

The film is built around the character of Chekh, who is portrayed by three different actors at different ages – Andriy Cherednyk and Volodymyr Gladky briefly portray him in the scenes that bookend either side of the film, while Vladyslav Baliuk has the lion’s share of time on screen, playing Tymophii as he navigates the ambiguous space between adolescence and adulthood; a difficult time for anyone, but which is made even more challenging when there is an abundance of socio-cultural discord in your surroundings. Baliuk is astonishing in the part – it’s a performance that depends on subtlety, since not only is he playing a character that is still developing but he also acts as the audience’s surrogate, so it was entirely necessary to portray him as someone both fascinating and endearing enough to capture our attention and maintain it as we venture through the world alongside him. This is a film that is very compassionate towards its characters but rarely views them as flawless, choosing to actively assemble a group of interesting individuals, each one playing an active role in the protagonist’s development – a coming-of-age film is most effective when it pays as much attention to the main character as it does to those who were present at different parts of his journey, and Anastasiya Karpenko and Yuriy Izdryk in particular are most impactful, respectively playing his caring mother and the veteran who inadvertently leaves the biggest impression on the young man. The characterization was key to this film, and contributes significantly to the off-kilter but unique tone through which some challenging material is filtered.

They often say that the pen is mightier than the sword, and few films exemplify this better and with more precision than Rock Paper Grenade, in which we see the world through the eyes of a young man who grew up in hostile surroundings. He turned this into a beautiful literary account, which subsequently formed the basis for this stunning and impressive cinematic achievement. This film is a timely and moving document about both the past and the present, taking the form of a tender and funny coming-of-age story, in which we see the development of someone who may resent being referred to as a hero, but who certainly earned many impressive achievements in his various endeavours. Constructed as a series of striking episodic moments that take place over several years, it converges into a poignant exploration of shifting identity and grasping one’s sense of individuality. Moving with a precise and vivacious musicality, Rock Paper Grenade situates us in a discordant and slightly absurd version of the world, one that is formed through the combination of rose-tinted nostalgia and a creative sense of humour, which work in tandem to create this tremendously compelling and deeply thought-provoking account of a young man’s journey into adulthood and the many adventures he encountered along the way, which played a vital role in his development into a true artist.