25 July 2024
Read our review of stay as premiered at 2023 Fantasia Fest

Fantasia International Film Festival 2023 – Film Review – Stay Online (2023)

Shot under the constant threat of missile strikes in Ukraine this astonishingly raw Screenlife drama unfolds mostly in real-time. Pulsing with understandable vitriol it’s the most honest, and vital, anti-war film since Elem Klimov’s Come and See.

Katya is a volunteer worker using a donated laptop. She subsequently discovers the laptop’s owner is missing after making contact with his 8-year-old son who is desperate to be reunited with his parents. He is utterly obsessed with Spiderman so Katya adopts the role of ‘SuperKatya’ to gain his trust. In a breathtaking race against time, Katya uses all her guile and cunning to sift through the information at her fingertips and deploys the friends and family she has in the field of conflict.

However, as the stakes climb ever higher she must make choices and sacrifices that will push her personal resolve to heartbreaking levels and unmask the true costs of conflict.

Eva Strelnikova‘s incendiary protest piece begins with a title sequence containing graphic images of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Once the film initiates its Screenlife world of cascading inboxes, calendars, Facebook, Google, G.P.S apps and video calls it becomes no less harrowing. No icon click or keyboard tap is wasted as her film barrels towards its heartstopping climax.

The constant news feed pop-ups that spawn relentlessly throughout the film, some coinciding with the unfolding action, and the frequent missile strike warnings that force Katya to decamp into her bathtub, make Stay Online a truly demanding and challenging watch. However, as the viewer settles into the format the ingenious set -pieces take hold and the payoff for our concentration is richly rewarded.

Despite its clear anti-war message Stay Online is an astonishingly angry film. It is riddled with the incandescent rage of a populous being murdered and dripping with brave indignation at the vaporisation of freedoms. The pure hatred Ukranians feel for their invaders is sanded down to a granular level rather than glossed over.

One of Katya’s passwords is FUCKRUSSIANHARD, the Russian troops are portrayed as racist dullards made morally bankrupt by the veils of propaganda, and Putin himself is derided as a lunatic in the grip of senility. However, nothing will prepare you for the jaw-dropping video call Katya shares with a Russian woman and her heavily pregnant daughter. It is a vicious encounter of linguistic nastiness that contains a range of insults for the ages.

It is not just Russian oppressors burnt by the acid lick of this disarmingly frank film. The humanitarian corridors for civilians are revealed to be farcical, and the outside world’s response is criticised as inadequate. Katya’s mother, whose repeated calling at the most inopportune moments provides rare humour, states ominously “NATO is in no hurry to help us“. The vague statements about membership made during President Biden’s recent visit to the U.K. did nothing to prove her wrong.

Stay Online is technically superb in the execution of its sparse resources. Ergonomic as well as economic it wrings every ounce of tension from its minimalistic premise. The setup may appear limiting at first but there are beautifully subtle touches to enrich the Screenlife framework.

The speed of the mouse cursor is manipulated to signify urgency, the gathering of composure, and even ethical contemplation. Similarly, the text boxes are filled and deleted highlighting the internal conflict between what Katya feels and what she is prepared to say. In some cases, Katya changes her responses due to incoming revelations we witness at the same time she does, a sumptuous fragment of in-the-moment cine literacy that mines precious gems of audience empathy and investment.

All the performances are naturalistic and authentic, as you would expect considering their stage is set in an active theatre of war. Even so, all the portrayals are superb and make the most of the chillingly vibrant script. But, it is Liza Zaitseva‘s ‘SuperKatya’ that does the majority of the emotional heavy lifting.

A resourceful and inventive empath with a talent for on-the-fly improvisation Katya is no top-tier hacker. What she is however is determined and proactive and does things we could all do if we only had the presence of mind she does. This keeps her character relatable as we will her to succeed in her tasks whether they be sourcing a Spiderman costume or guiding her bold brother Vitya through the dangerous “Grey Areas” of Kyiv.

Liza Zaitseva is nothing less than sensational as she builds a layered character of remarkable depth. Every tear, scream, smile, and despairing sigh is executed perfectly. The film relies on her talents to channel its powerful agenda and she shoulders the burden of conveying the courage, anguish, and panic of an entire country with grace and conviction.

Whether or not Stay Online hits the mark as a gripping war drama or not seems strangely irrelevant. The fact it does is a miraculous feat of filmmaking. It’s as much of a tangible historical document as a dramatic triumph and anyone with even a passing interest in the phenomenal power of cinema should seek it out.

★★★★★

WORLD PREMIERE

War, Drama, Experimental | Ukraine | 109 MINS | Fantasia 2023 | Mamas Production LLC | Dir. Eva Strelnikova |With: Hordii Dziubynskyi, Roman Liakh, Oleksandr Rudynskyi, Yelyzaveta Zaitseva, Olesia Zhurakivska


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