The term “coming of age” is misleading, implying “age” is some far-off looming entity that you can see approaching and prepare for accordingly. Really, growing up is experienced in milestones you seldom even notice until they’re long in the rearview and you’re busy being disappointed by how un-green the grass of adulthood really is. Bosnian writer-director Una Gunjak’s debut feature, “Excursion” which debuted in Locarno before playing in competition at the Sarajevo Film Festival, innately understands this hard truth and delivers a solemn, sensitive teen angst drama that is careful – perhaps too careful – to avoid big flourishes in favor of small gestures: a sharp glance, a loaded silence, a secret smile.
One such strange little smile plays across the lips of Iman (an excellent Asja Zara Lagumdzija), a straight-A 15-year-old in her last year of middle school as she’s driven home along with her best friend Hana (Nadja Spaho). Their class was kept late while their parents discussed plans for an upcoming school trip – with Venice being suggested as a possible destination. The parents fret about their kids’ safety on such an excursion, especially in light of a notorious recent event – the truth of which is hard to separate from internet-fueled hysterical gossip – during which seven underage girls in Banja Luka, a Serb-majority Bosnian town in the north, had reportedly returned home pregnant after a similar outing. Hana’s father announces he will not let her go. Another parent argues about the expense. But mostly they return to the Banja Luka story, and the hovering specter of teen pregnancy, while, in the next classroom over their restless kids, including Iman and Hana, play a raucous game of truth or dare. The choice is always dare and the dare is always a kiss or a touch or an inexpertly performed lapdance.
While the kids are idly spinning the bottle, screeching, eyerolling and snatching insta-ready video of each other’s clumsy moves, someone asks Iman, who sits outside the circle withdrawn under a mop of pink-blonde hair, if the rumors of her having had sex with a local boy are true. You can sense Iman’s pulse quickening and her mind turning as the whole class hangs on her reply (Lagumdzija’s watchability is the film’s biggest asset) — anyone who was ever a 15-year-old girl can probably recognise and relate to the paradox of both wanting and fearing the attention of your peers. But just because Iman is self-conscious doesn’t mean she’s self-aware, and there’s a brittle bravado to how, rather than issuing the expected denial, she decides to declare the rumor true.
It is not true, as we discover soon after, when Hana confronts Iman when they’re alone. But Iman’s reasons for lying, and for that funny little smile of satisfaction in the car, are clear to her, if not to anyone else. She likes the boy in question — an older and worldlier neighbor whom she’s known for years — and wishes it all had actually happened. “Why would he have told people we slept together if he didn’t want to?” she reasons, in the first of several colossal misreadings of the psychology of teenage boys. But the repercussions of her lie start to snowball, rebounding on her hardworking, slightly distracted mother (Maja Izetbegović) especially after Iman, perhaps a little drunk on the sudden glamor of notoriety, doubles down and pretends that she is pregnant. All at once, it’s not only her place in the social hierarchy or her friendship with Hana that’s at stake, but the school trip itself.
Gunjak displays a knack for realism, combining DP Matthias Pilz’s clean, handheld aesthetic with the unobtrusive editing from Clemence Diard to give the film its sympathetic but straightforward, level-headed tone of voice. But this unadorned presentation also works against the scrupulously careful screenplay, delivering drama that can at times feel restrained to the point of drabness. Certain lively, potentially contentious notes — such as the rancorous banter between Bosnian parents about the Banja Luka girls being Serbs and therefore getting “what they deserved” — are picked up only to be quickly brushed away, when the prejudices and resentments specific to the region could have given the story added piquancy.
While the dynamics between the classmates are very accurately drawn — refreshingly, the other girls can be as kind as they are catty toward Iman — Gunjak’s relentless explication of this one girl’s troubled state of mind soon starts to tread water. “Excursion,” a promising but hesitant debut, can feel like it’s straining to create a mystery out of a mere mistake, especially as it lands on an ambivalent finale that leaves Iman adrift, full of uncertainty and self-doubt, alienated from her own motivations, and therefore, more like an ordinary grown-up than any pretense of sexual experience could ever have made her.