“If you do something enough times,” says teenaged Lena (Emma Levie), “it just goes by itself.” She’s speaking of line dancing, the moment when you stop counting steps, watching your feet or listening for the beat, when the rhythm takes hold and you no longer need to think. But she could just as easily be speaking of sex, which for Lena comes easy, certainly more easily than love, tenderness or even simple consideration.
Lena lives in Rotterdam with her mother Danka (Agata Buzek), who puts a flag in the window whenever she has a man in the apartment so that Lena doesn’t interrupt. Danka constantly reminds Lena that she’s overweight and in the way: a burden in every sense. Lena doesn’t want to be defined by her size, but it seems she’s only free of it while dancing or having sex. All this changes when she meets Daan (Niels Gomperts). She spots him one night while she’s riding her moped and he’s running from the cops. Daan is handsome and apparently wealthy. He doesn’t mind Lena’s size. He might even be in love with her. He buys her expensive gifts and asks her to move in. Lena is happy to flee her miserable home life, but can she trust Daan?
Christophe Van Rompaey’s Lena examines divides of class, gender and body type. It’s investment in character and routine is akin to a Zola novel, taking the necessary time to penetrate its heroine’s exterior. The film begins and ends with close-ups of Lena’s face, which in the interim we’ve witnessed shift from its innocent, vaguely cheerful gaze to something alive with rage, disappointment, ecstasy and, finally, understanding. Lena learns self-respect and, when things go really haywire, responsibility. All of this hinges on Levie’s performance, which is not only courageous, but also announces the arrival of an extraordinary talent. –TIFF