You could be forgiven for grimacing at the very notion of “Romanian Mumblecore.” And if Bogdan Theodor Olteanu‘s debut feature were a mixture of the least appealing associations of both terms — some sort of unholy amalgam of the lo-fi, unrefined navel-gazing of mumblecore and the sometimes dour social realism of the Romanian New Wave — it would indeed be a slog. But instead, “Several Conversations About A Very Tall Girl,” which played at the Transilvania International Film Festival and next will show up in Edinburgh, melds the strengths of all these influences to deliver a delightful, insightful sliver of a thing that feels both New Wave-authentic and airily spontaneous.
Its 70 minutes track a modern relationship, with the length of the film correlating to the brevity of the affair. But ‘Conversations’ is also unusual in the exact, fleeting moment in its young protagonist’s life that it highlights. Lesbian romances in film are still primarily represented in coming-out and coming-of-age narratives, stories of painful, awkward awakenings and transformative first loves. But here we track what seems to be our heroine’s second homosexual relationship — and the exact moment that, for her (played with radiant freshness by debutante Silvana Mihai, of whom we should expect to see a lot more), the discovery that “I like a girl” morphs definitively into “I like girls.” This second encounter, or series of encounters, is from the outset not as important to her as the first — indeed, it is that first woman, the “very tall girl” of the title, who brings her into the orbit of the second.
The women remain nameless throughout but we first see Mihai’s protagonist on a Skype call — Olteanu is unembarrassed by the lo-res aesthetic of social media interaction, and while initially a little jarring in its ugliness, it does build up a kind of cup-of-tea-at-the-kitchen-table intimacy with his lead, who seems to be talking directly to us. Actually, she’s chatting with another woman (Florentina Nastase, a great foil for Mihai as her more experienced soon-to-be-lover) whom she has tracked down online. They talk a while about their mutual acquaintance — the very tall girl — with whom it transpires both have had a relationship. The fresh-faced Mihai still seems to carry a torch, but the savvier Nastase is more offhand about her — and more interested in the possibility of something new developing between the two of them: two exes making a “why not?” Soon they meet IRL and a tentative relationship begins, under the long shadow of the tall girl, but also of the younger woman’s general unsureness. “There are no lesbians in my hometown” she says at one point, and the sense of them both being at different stages of their journey, with Nastase playing the comfortably out, urbane, self-assured lesbian and Mihai the hesitant, curious country girl just beginning to explore her sexuality, becomes the real antagonist here.
Romania has been such a force in world cinema in recent decades that there is a sense that we’re still waiting for the New Wave to break, or wondering if it has already done so without our noticing. But with recent films from founding fathers Mungiu, Puiu, and Porumboiu (including the latter’s wonderfully offbeat 2018 doc “Infinite Football“) being as strong as any they’ve done, it’s definitely still a thriving movement. If anything, what the modest and defiantly low-stakes, but truthful and charming ‘Conversations’ proves, is that the staples of that hugely influential national cinema are so robust that they can successfully hybridize with newer, more guerrilla styles to open up the club to a new generation of filmmakers.
‘Conversations’ may be relatively lighthearted in its investigation of sexuality in a middle-class Bucharest of house parties, video calls, and student art projects, but it’s still socially aware, just embedded in a world that is probably more relatable to many younger Romanians than the gray, Ceaușescu-haunted past. Meanwhile, of course, its appealing performances and wistful wisdom should see it travel beyond its national borders easily where its tiny, gentle story feels universal: A strangely affecting tribute to placeholder love affairs — the ones that lie somewhere on the spectrum between drunken one-night-stand and grand defining passion and that seldom get their own movies, but still play a part in making us the people we are. [B/B+]