There’s that song by Arcade Fire, In the Backseat, the last song on their epoch-defining Funeral. It’s about going from the backseat to the front seat, about gaining responsibility as one gets older. At the end, Régine Chassagne sings: I’ve been learning to drive / My whole life. Well, some learn to drive faster than others. Varpu, the 12-year-old girl at the centre of Selma Vilhunen’s debut feature Little Wing, learns it faster than most.
Her mum can’t drive. She takes the test over and over, and fails every time, leaving her young daughter to take the bus home the whole way from the riding school to their small apartment. And it’s a long way, for Varpu lives on the wrong side of the tracks, in a part of Helsinki where the kids spend their time smoking and stealing cars for fun rather than practising horse jump, so Varpu has to travel quite a way. And make up stories as to who her mum and dad are.
But Varpu can drive. She can do a lot of things. While her mum seems unable to handle most things – she says herself that she is ‘retarded’, though the film doesn’t say whether she is honest, or overstating things in her frustration – Varpu quickly learns how to handle cars, and one night she decides to go look for her father. Who she knows can do wonderful drawings and cute poems. And the rest of the backstory, she doesn’t know.
Selma Vilhunen wrote the script as well as directed the film, and it’s a marvellous script. There isn’t much of a story here, but the characters seem so alive, and as if they have so much backstory, that it doesn’t matter. An audience member asked for a sequel focusing on a small character in a subplot that by design goes nowhere, and the director admitted it wasn’t the first time someone had suggested such a spinoff. But there seems to be so much more to this story than what the film chooses to show us. Which is a good thing all around?
Most of the praise should surround Varpu, and how it should be divided between Vilhunen and young actress Linnea Skog is hard to tell. The character is so well sketched out from the script as well, the way she talks about everything with a wisdom beyond her years, but that she still acts like a child over and over. That her friends tease her that she is ‘too good’, but that she still immediately goes along for a ride in a stolen car – goodness is relative in the rough part of Helsinki, I guess. Just a small thing such as the green nail polish she constantly wears. It would be easy to define her as either a tomboy, liking cars and the rush that comes from jumping with a horse, or as a girlish horse-lover, who can’t stop babbling on about geldings and mares, but she is a bit of both, and wholly unique, and the green nail polish seems to encapsulate that.
But Linnea Skog deserves a heap of praise as well. So many glances, so many looks, so much weariness, cleverness, ableness, is encapsulated by the young actress. She has a glance towards the end of the film, looking out of another car window, at the world, at her life. And then a little smile, a unique smile, held just for a second, then Vilhunen cuts away. That’s what cinema is all about. Faces like that, life’s like that, smiles like that. With moments like that, Little Wing is a very promising debut from a director and an actress that hopefully, we’ll see a lot more of.