Director: Eva Strelnikova
Starring: Yelyzaveta Zaitseva, Oleksandr Rudynskyi, Hordii Dzuibnskyi, Roman Liakh, Oleksandr Yarema
Against the backdrop of the ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine, director Yeva Strielnikova delivers her feature debut in the form of Stay Online. With such an emotive subject matter, one that is very much still raging on as per the publishing of this review, comes a sense of voyeurism almost especially given the fact that the vast majority of Stay Online is presented via the Screenlife format - a format which utilises the use of a computer screen and multiple online communication apps in place of more traditional filmmaking styles. But it's a format that generally works here, though it was more of a necessity given the struggles that the country is facing.
Strielnikova also stressed the importance of online comms, stating that by literally staying online, those caught in the war zones were able to communicate their status to family and friends, alongside the idea that wars are now also fought using this method.
"Strielnikova allows for plenty of tension in moments between Katya and Vitya, but the real emotion comes from her interactions with Sava, some of those really were quite hard to watch."
Stay Online follows Katya (Zaitseva), a volunteer in the war effort, who has been tasked with downloading and installing a covert military app to one of the thousands of donated laptops before passing it onto her brother Vitya (Rudynskyy) on the front lines. Whilst waiting for the installation to complete, Kate receives a phone call via the laptop from a young boy searching for his parents. What began as a simple task quickly escalates into a search and rescue mission that endangers those closest to Katya.
The synopsis could easily portray Stay Online as a taut political thriller (or something akin), though that is not the case. Sure, the Russians aren’t particularly portrayed well throughout (bar one scene regarding a soldier's mother) but Strielnikova doesn’t allow the movie to become overly jingoistic or for the characters to fall into unearned hero territory. Instead, any action - which feels shockingly authentic - is interspersed with frantic messages regarding the safety of friends, calls with young superhero-obsessed Sava (Dziubynskyi) whilst searching for his parents, and a handful of other necessary subplots. Whilst all of this was occurring, there were times when the Screenlife format felt forced, and, also, moments where it was abandoned completely which removed some of the overall impact, but the first proved effective for the majority of the time it was in play.
It would also be fairly easy, I’d imagine, to have created something that really aimed at the heartstrings in a disingenuous way, but Stay Online isn’t that film. Throughout, the story and events felt non-manipulative, and, at times, genuinely hard-hitting, especially given we are still living through this conflict and people are still being affected. Strielnikova allows for plenty of tension in moments between Katya and Vitya, but the real emotion comes from her interactions with Sava, some of those really were quite hard to watch.
Stay Online aims for realism throughout, and it achieves that for the most part. Some elements felt far-fetched or forced but I believed the situations to be genuine (again, whilst aware that actual situations like this happening as we speak) and the interactions to feel legitimate. Whilst it may not hit every beat it set out to, Stay Online carries real emotion and provides a spark of light to emerge from real darkness.
July 22nd 2023