Purposefully gruelling, Eva Strelnikova’s Stay Online is often times brutal and compelling, but never does it lose its emotional core. Liza Zaitseva anchors the film in a devastating manner – a thriller that leaves you as helpless as its protagonist.
Katya (Liza Zaitseva), a volunteer from Kyiv, is fighting against the Russian invasion of Ukraine. While using a laptop donated to the resistance, she comes into contact with the original owner’s superhero-obsessed son, who is looking for his lost parents. In an effort to make a positive change in this boy’s life and pull herself out of a destructive cycle, Katya risks all that she holds dear to locate his parents.
Trauma is rife in Stay Online, a film that sometimes feels breathless as we navigate a brief period in the world of those caught up in the needless invasion. The film excels, though, in showing us the sheer amount of continued trauma that families in Ukraine are going through daily. Unsure if sons and daughters are safe as they work in fighting Russians who have invaded their land.
The effects of such events on these innocent Ukrainians are never lost, be it the soldiers fighting for their country’s freedom and the lives of their loved ones or those just keeping shelter from the endless bombardment. You realise that no one from the country can ever come out of this the same, with each compelling performance pummelling that fact home throughout.
Using the idea of screen life, where a film is told entirely through the lens of what we see on the screen, it becomes odd that Eva Strelnikova breaks away from that with the odd cuts away to Katya in the house and her non-recorded reactions of what she has seen or learned. There are a few more moments where we break from the proper use of screenlife, for example, when we see a car that has been shot up. Suddenly we push into the screen to see an almost 3D version of the photo. You forgive this, though, as that scene becomes so harrowing as we hear what happened in the past with that car; the voices and cries stay with you, and it does feel emotionally brutal for audiences.
The entire film lives and dies from the performance of Zaitseva; if her performance falters, the film is done. We aren’t told much about her, which works perfectly fine for Stay Online. She has to be so exhaustingly emotive throughout. Her character has to juggle so much, be it trying to make sure her brother is safe, reassuring her mother about her own safety, and putting everything within herself to protect her brother, who is right in the middle of the fights.
Being that vulnerable for almost 90% of the film takes a lot of skill. She can only go from one call to the next to relay or find information for whoever needs it. At times she, like the audience, feels totally helpless about what they are witnessing. Merely begging and pleading for a positive resolution. It is a performance and a film, in fact, that drains you of all energy until, in the end, much like Katya, you are spent, left to ruminate over what you have witnessed.
Stay Online is a bold film that successfully teeters along a tricky balancing act of showing us war as we have never seen it before and keeping a strong emotional narrative at play. Ultimately, it is a film that sheds the starkest light on what those in Ukraine are going through, be it a soldier, volunteer, or just a worried parent or child.
The Fantasia International Film Festival takes place in Montreal from July 20th through August 9th.
For more of our coverage of Fantasia 2023, please see below:
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