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SUNDANCE 2019 World Cinema Documentary Competition

Review: The Magic Life of V

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- Tonislav Hristov’s new documentary, screening at Sundance, delivers some touching moments but, just like its protagonist, struggles to find its real voice

Review: The Magic Life of V

Early on in Tonislav Hristov’s The Magic Life of V [+see also:
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film profile
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, now screening in the World Cinema Documentary Competition of the Sundance Film Festival (24 January-3 February), Finnish girl Veera is shown painting her hair blue and talking about her “character”, V. “She is very talkative and wants to be friends with everyone from the start,” she explains merrily on the way to a Polish castle standing in for Hogwarts, where she is hoping to enter the universe of Harry Potter. “She is happy all the time.” Needless to say, the real Veera is anything but – or so it seems, as she doesn’t quite know herself.

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While already attracting attention for offering some insight into the world of LARPing (live-action role-play, with players inhabiting their own characters in real-life settings), be it at the aforementioned School of Witchcraft and Wizardry or in some post-apocalyptic land bristling with mutants, both of which Veera is eager to try out, The Magic Life of V seems to be about something more mundane: alcoholism. As she starts to open up about her childhood plagued by her father’s addiction to a fellow wizard or a therapist, grainy family videos suddenly become more and more menacing and a sad story emerges – with the passing of time indicated only by different hair colours and a changing accent. 

It’s a story that everyone involved tries to downplay for as long as they can. “I remember his sense of humour was strange,” says Veera’s mum after hearing that her ex pretended to slit his throat in front of the kids. If, as some therapists claim, the children of alcoholics often escape into their own fantasies, Veera actually becomes other people, at least for a few hours or days, trying to work out her issues in full costume and while summoning demons. But she is not the only one affected by the past, with her disabled brother put through similar hardships and clearly not as comfortable to bare all in front of the camera. Unfortunately, that’s also where the film is at its weakest, with overlong conversations spelling out what you already know, echoing the forced interactions that most reality television shows are made of. 

It’s a mature work and another step up from entertaining, if rather shallow, fare such as Hristov’s earlier Love & Engineering [+see also:
trailer
film profile
]
, but it’s hardly as memorable or, indeed, magical as it deserves to be. “What’s so unique about Finland and alcohol?” wonders some reporter on CNN, and while it’s hard to say, there will certainly be more movies about it. However, few will be able to top one fleeting moment when Veera finally gets to confront her father. What he tells her, and what this author has no intention of spoiling here, provides a truly knockout moment, heart-breaking in its obviousness and banality. It’s just a shame that it comes so late in the game. 

The Magic Life of V was produced by Kaarle Aho and Kai Nordberg of Making Movies in co-production with Soul Food and Kirstine Barfod Films. Its international sales are handled by Cat&Docs.

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