Lukas Moodysson's third feature, Lilya 4-Ever (2002), moves the setting of his previous two (Fucking Åmål and Together) away from Sweden and into an unwelcoming estate somewhere in the former Soviet Union. Here, where people struggle to make ends meet, young Lilya is excited to learn that she'll be leaving such a miserable life behind and emigrating to the United States with her mother, who has met a Russian man resident there through a dating agency. But the dream of America is temporarily put on hold as her mother, with the new partner at her side, sits her down and informs her that they will be going on ahead and will send for her.
Thus begins a series of betrayals for Lilya who, after a lengthy period, soon realises that her mother no longer cares for her. As if her own mother wasn't enough, Aunt Anna, her new guardian, moves her into a new dingy apartment - where an elderly war hero has recently died - while exercising an ulterior motive. And finally, when the father of Natasha, Lilya's friend, finds a sum of money that his daughter made through prostituting herself, Lilya is quick to receive the blame, an accusation that leads to the small society she moves within fully ostracising her. Once the stories have spread through the school grapevine a gang of older boys break into her apartment and rape her. Throughout the ever worsening events, her only friend is the similarly outcast Volodya, a boy two years her junior who is physically abused by his alcoholic father. With no money coming in and a need to make ends meet, Lilya herself turns to prostitution.
Then, just as the story is getting incredibly bleak a ray of hope arrives in the form of Andrei. Andrei is a bit of a rich kid who works in Sweden and, after a couple of dates, he asks her to come and live with him. His boss, he acklnowledges, can get her a job. Volodya warns her against the move but Lilya's young and naïve and, given the day to day surroundings, she accepts. And when Andrei secures her a passport for the journey his grandmother comes down with an illness to which he needs to respond to by visiting her. She shouldn't worry, however - she can go on ahead as his boss will pick her up. From there, Lilya's life just gets worse.
While the film is relentless in the harsh realities it deals Lilya, there are optimistic glimmers within. Not many, and they are not overly explciit. Lilya and Volodya talk about their impressions of Heaven, an image of the Virgin Mary hangs on Lilya's wall (to which she goes when she needs strength), and, in a dream, Volodya visits Lilya in Sweden and offers her the world for Christmas.
The acting throughout is superb. The emotion on Lilya's face when her mother leaves for America, in particular, is heart wrenching. The performance of the actors is incredibly natural and there are obvious improvisations within that help make it even more realistic. Even amongst the minor players you can't help but buy in to their portrayals, whether it be the Lilya's friends and family, her pimp, or the numerous johns.
Lilya 4-Ever is not the sort of film designed to entertain but carries a political message intended to open discussion on the subject of trafficking children for prostitution. Thankfully it's not preachy with its message and instead gets it across with a story blessed with strong characters and the ability to innocently pull at heart strings. And while you sympathise with the plight of Lilya, it's sobering to realise just how tough it can be for all the girls out there for whom this sort of life is not fiction.