Fans of 2019 Palme d’Or contender Portrait Of A Lady On Fire will know Luàna Bajrami as the terrific young actress who portrayed the maid, Sophie. Now, the French-Kosovan returns to Cannes as a writer, director and star with Directors’ Fortnight drama The Hill Where Lionesses Roar (Luaneshat E Kodrës). Bajrami is only 20 years old, so unsurprisingly this is her debut, which she made when she was just 19.
The story takes place in Kosovo, where three friends Qe (Flaka Latifi), Li (Era Balaj) and Jeta (Uratë Shabani) live in a remote village. Bored and desperate for escape, they decide to form a gang and rob local businesses, gaining a sense of freedom and independence from their rebellious actions. What begins as a slow-burning drama about female friendship moves into Bling Ring territory, although the film is strongest in its quieter moments, when it explores the bond between girls who feel limited by their parochial surroundings.
Aided by good work from cinematographer Hug Paturel, Bajrami creates a vivid sense of place, while the era is perhaps deliberately ambiguous. The sun shines as the trio loll around the countryside, bemoaning being stuck. An intriguing interruption comes with the arrival of Lena, played by Bajrami herself. Befriending Qe when she visits her grandmother, she is cautiously welcomed into the group, who are curious about what they perceive as her more exciting life in France.
But Lena’s questioning, analytical mode of conversation also confuses and alienates other girls her age. When Lena departs the story, you feel the lack of this depth, which provided a more contemplative contrast to the frustrated rants of the other girls, and highlighted the tendency for teenagers to buckle to peer pressure.
Still, the details of their life remain absorbing, as Li debates a relationship with mustachioed youth Zem (Andi Bajgora), who has connections with more dangerous local boys. Moments of sexual fluidity are shown without fanfare. We only glimpse trouble in their home lives.
Bajrami favors quiet observation over exposition as she shows the young women going about their daily lives, often hanging out in conspicuously empty buildings. There is also a sense of their potential being overlooked: they fail to be selected to go onto further education and their male teacher seems uninterested in explaining this decision. It’s telling that adult characters are only seen briefly — and unlike many a crime caper, this doesn’t feature much news footage or scenes of lawmakers and police investigating and tracking the culprits down. While budgetary constraints may be part of the reason, this is also an effective way of centering on the three girls, and the rage they feel that is both specific to their location, and universal for teenagers. Bajrami’s promising first feature is an ode to caged lionesses everywhere.
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