‘Half-Sister’ (‘Polsestra’): Film Review | Karlovy Vary 2019

Estranged semi-siblings share an apartment, and decades of bitter resentment, in the darkly funny Slovenian drama ‘Half-Sister.’

Essentially a sustained master class in Resting Bitch Face, Half-Sister is a fractious but frequently hilarious two-hander about squabbling siblings working through decades of unresolved mutual loathing. Despite the glum subject matter, Slovenian writer-director Damjan Kozole’s latest dramatic feature paints a sunnier, funnier portrait of his Balkan homeland than his previous films, which touched on darker themes such as people trafficking, political corruption and prostitution.

Half-Sister world premiered last week at Karlovy Vary film festival in the Czech Republic, where Kozole won the Best Director prize for his last feature, the macabre murder thriller Nightlife (2016). Partly inspired by events in the director’s own family history, this small-scale comic chamber piece should grab further festival play on the strength of its spiky script and strong character chemistry. Theatrical business will be niche, but Kozole’s solid track record should boost its chances in international art house circles.

The Bottom Line

Sisters without mercy.

Screenplay co-author Ursa Menart plays Irena, a sullen young hairdresser in the midst of an emotionally draining divorce from her feckless husband, Brane (sulky Adam Driver look-alike Jurij Drevensek). Irena lives and works in the Slovenian capital Ljubljana, but her family roots are in the coastal town of Izola. During a brief visit home, she runs into her half-sister Neza (Liza Marijina), a punky tomboy outsider with a switchblade and a hot temper. As the child of an Albanian mother, Neza has learned to face down regular racist slurs with defensive threats.

They may share a father, but these two young women have little else in common. Their temperaments are wildly different, their lifestyles barely comparable, their relationship historically prickly. But since both are desperately short of money, and Neza is moving to Ljubljana to start a college course, Irena tentatively suggests that they try sharing a cramped rental apartment. What could possibly go wrong?

Once settled in their tiny living space, this ill-matched couple spend most of their time together exchanging enjoyably caustic insults, revisiting ancient grievances and joylessly chain-smoking. Reconciliation between the sisters initially seems impossible. But slowly, and somewhat predictably, they reach an uneasy truce. Animal lover Neza introduces Irena to vegan food, helps her retrieve her belongings from Brane and proves an unexpected ally when he crosses the line from rejected ex to menacing stalker.

The endearingly blunt, kick-ass Neza is the film’s main energy source, even if her character is a little too baldly sketched. She appears to have no private life, no cultural hinterland and no friends in the world besides her pet dog Jimmy. All the same, Marijina inhabits the role with relish, one eyebrow perpetually half-cocked in bemused disdain, mouth set in a permanently unimpressed scowl. Menart has the more difficult task of playing the less sympathetic, less charismatic Irena. Her chilly, precise performance is all the more impressive from a nonprofessional. As co-writer of Half-Sister, sometime assistant director to Kozole, and a filmmaker in her own right, Menart only took on the role after official casting sessions proved fruitless.

Half-Sister is skeletally plotted and low on major incident. Kozole shoots in a prosaic docudrama style, mostly confining himself to a handful of interiors. The dramatic canvas here is more indie intimacy than cinematic spectacle, with disappointingly few shots of Ljubljana or Izola. Audience appeal depends heavily on the main characters and their exchange of hilariously sour, sarcastic, curse-heavy one-liners. Returning to their shared apartment after a supposedly irreparable fallout, Neza tells Irena: “I was missing your emotional coldness.” The pleasures here are modest, but they ripen into something richer as the story unfolds.

Production companies: Vertigo, Sisters and Brother Mitevska, Film House Bas Celik, RTV Slovenia
Cast: Ursa Menart, Liza Marijina, Jurij Drevensek, Peter Musevski, Damjana Cerne
Director: Damjan Kozole
Screenwriters: Damjan Kozole, Ursa Menart, Ognjen Svilicic
Producers: Danijel Hocevar, Labina Mitevska, Jelena Mitrovic
Cinematographer: Miladin Colakovic
Production designer: Neza Zinajic
Editors: Jurij Moskon, Atanas Georgiev
Venue: Karlovy Vary International Film Festival
Sales: Vertigo, Slovenia

105 minutes