I’ll Be Around (Ya budu ryadom)

Russia (2012) Dir. Pavel Ruminov

Inna (Maria Shalaeva) is young single mother working as the manager of a successful restaurant while bringing up her six year-old son Mitya (Roman Zenchuk). Their relationship is a very close and loving one until Inna begins to display signs of fatigue, dizziness and lack of feeling in her right hand. Medical examinations reveal an incurable disease which Inna keeps from Mitya, but the boy begins to notice the change in his mother. Fearful for his future since Mitya’s father is a deadbeat loser, Inna begins the search for the perfect couple to foster then adopt her son.

This touching drama, is the latest from Pavel Ruminov, a former TV commercial and music video director who crossed over to movies with his acclaimed debut from 2004, Deadline. It’s an unflinching and heartbreaking account of a mother making the ultimate sacrifice for her son in the wake of a terminal illness that won Ruminov the Best Film award at the 2012 Kinotavr Film Festival, the largest national Russian film festival.

Like most illness, Inna’s comes out of nowhere and is seemingly triggered by the innocent act of taking a photograph, which caused her vision to be compromised by sudden darkness. It is not until she loses all feeling and sensation in her right hand that Inna seeks medical attention, which is dismissed as stress and lack of fresh air. It is while out at a fun park with Mitya that Inna collapses and the ensuing brain scan does not yield positive results. When Inna returns home with a headscarf covering her shaven, post operation head Mitya begins to suspect something is wrong.

Wanting the best for her son, Inna submits a video of Mitya to adoption agencies and interviews a number of prospective couples, most of whom don’t display the genuine qualities and motives for adopting Mitya that Inna desires. It is not until a woman, Olga (Mariya Syomkina), a florist who arrives alone, says what Inna wants to hear and believes that a new home and family appears to have been found for Mitya, a move quickened by the immediate bond that forms between the boy, Olga and her husband Sergey (Ivan Volkov). But letting go isn’t easy for Inna and as her condition worsens, she fears being forgotten by Mitya.

One possibly couldn’t imagine being in Inna’s position, having to make such a difficult and selfless decision that effectively tears her heart out, but in light of not having grandparents, siblings and a useless ex-husband, it is a necessary and level headed move. Rather than leaving the vetting of the couples willing to adopt Mitya to the authorities and social services, Inna takes this job on herself, ensuring her son goes to the right home. Since many parents never get that opportunity Inna should be applauded for having the foresight and instinctive parental intuition to ensure the future and welfare of her son is secure before she passes away.

Ruminov presents his film largely in a cinema vérité style with the camera catching every relevant, intimate moment in the lives of mother and son and later parents and adopted son. If one didn’t know they were acting, one would swear that Maria Shalaeva and Roman Zenchuk were genuine mother and son, such is the incredibly realistic and convincing chemistry between the two. All of the usual trials and tribulations parents and child go through are depicted here, from Mitya being disobedient when wanting to play instead of tidying up or the fun times being had at the amusement park. One scene guaranteed to have the audience getting the hankies out is Mitya believing a rumour about his prospective new parents being organ traffickers and he was being sold to them because he was naughty. Similarly tear jerking is the moment when mother and son are officially separated. I’ll say no more but it is decidedly poignant and emotionally affecting moment.

However this isn’t your usual sentimental, manipulative fare designed to have you bawling your eyes out at the tragedy of the situation. Ruminov shares with us the realism of the fallout of Inna’s illness for both Inna and Mitya, and takes a philosophical, humane and intelligent approach towards depicting the path towards the inevitable conclusion for Inna. Ruminov could have made Inna a tragic heroine but instead there is an aura of positivity surrounding her actions and decisions, while Mitya is portrayed even less of a victim or an inconvenient problem to be dealt with than he may have been in different hands.

While the camerawork creates an intimate and stark portrait of such a harrowing situation, it is the powerhouse performance from Maria Shalaeva that lifts this film to another plane. Shalaeva is tasked with taking her character from lively, energetic and doting single mother to an emotionally and physically drained, shaven headed terminally ill woman, who manages to retain a sense of playfulness and optimism towards her ailing life. It is one of those intense transformation performances where Shalaeva is truly tested in her range and abilities while keeping her character recognisable and passes with admiral flying colours. Young Roman Zenchuk also deserves credit for his impressive, natural essaying of Mitya is rich with the genuine nuanced reactions of a child caught in this difficult position while not knowing the full story.

In I’ll Be Around Ruminov presents us with a familiar scenario and delivers a unique but bleak and confrontational take on it, that touches a raw nerve while makes you think about what you would do in Inna’s position. It is emotional, honest and blunt yet tender and hopeful, and is a film that deserves a wider international audience than its current limited eastern bloc release. A minor gem.