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Review: Stay Online


- The first Ukrainian fiction feature to be made during the Russian invasion is a gripping screenlife war thriller

Review: Stay Online
Liza Zaitseva in Stay Online

The first fiction feature to be made during the war in Ukraine, Yeva Strelnikova's Stay Online [+see also:
interview: Yeva Strelnikova
film profile
, has triumphed in Fantasia's New Flesh Competition, winning Best First Feature. Fully taking place on laptop, smartphone and tablet screens – a subgenre known as screenlife – it is a gripping and, at times, touching war thriller, anchored by newcomer Liza Zaitseva's all-out performance.

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It is March 2022, and Zaitseva plays twenty-something Katya, a volunteer in Kyiv who receives a MacBook as part of a donation, and is using her considerable IT skills to assist the soldiers on the frontlines. These include her brother Vitya (Oleksandr Rudynskyi) and uncle Tolik (Oleksandr Yarema), who are fighting near Bucha, and her American friend Ryan (co-writer and producer Anton Skrypets), who leads a group of volunteers. Just as Katya is downloading a GPS-tracking application, she gets a call on Telegram from a little boy, Sava (Hordii Dziubynskyi), who is staying in a refugee centre in Lviv. It turns out the computer belonged to his father, Andriy (Roman Liakh), and he and his wife have been missing for two days.

A race to find Sava's parents begins as Katya puts the pieces together based on Andriy's notes, calendar, social-media posts, Telegram contacts and groups, and, of course, the GPS application. While the dialogue is in Ukrainian, the on-screen chats are, helpfully, in English. Katya keeps in touch with Sava, a huge superhero fan who is waiting for his Spiderman costume that his dad was supposed to get him the day before. So for Sava, our protagonist becomes SuperKatya, gaining his trust as he pins all his hopes on her.

Aided by Victor Greenchuk's fast but intelligible editing and DoP Kostyantyn Ponomaryov's instinct for clarity – the predominantly vertical videos convincingly emulating the messiness and chaos of war had to be lucidly combined with app windows on Katya's laptop – Strelnikova crafts a truly captivating thriller. But equally important is the characterisation, and Zaitseva's role is developed with depth and nuance. She gorges on energy drinks and gets dopamine hits by trolling the mothers of dead Russian soldiers, but her manic drive is guided by a humane spirit and a desire to contribute to the war effort.

All of the actors are convincing, and even though one can easily hear in Skrypets' accent that he is no American, he nails the simple but heartfelt optimism and outgoing spirit so well that the character could have been played by, say, Bradley Cooper. Even the boy, Dziubynskyi, has a raw but undeniable talent, and his interplay with Zaitseva forms the emotional core of the film, somewhat in the vein of Benigni's Life Is Beautiful, except that Sava is well aware there is a war going on.

The violent ending is both tragic and heroic, albeit executed in a somewhat rough manner that makes it harder to follow than the events that preceded it. Tomash Lukach's amply used electronic score, which ranges from emotional to dramatic registers, helps to pull off this segment.

The message is quite simple and straightforward: we now know who the real superheroes and supervillains are. There is a whiff of propaganda coming from this angle, but for a film about a war, made as the war is actually raging, it is in fact quite restrained. The Russians could easily have received a much worse treatment.

Stay Online is a Ukrainian co-production between Organisation of Ukrainian Producers, Mamas Production and AMO Pictures.

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