Film festivals, even those as prestigious as Toronto, are lousy with first features. Most of the time the best you can hope from them are a few films that, while not necessarily great, hint at a bright future for their creators. More often than not, the most impressive debuts (like Manolo Nieto's The Dog Pound, for example) reveal enough vision and ability that the weaknesses in the films are easy to overlook, and you're left eager to see the director's sophomore effort. On rare occasions, however, you see a film so confident and effective that it's almost frightening to consider what the director will produce once he or she gets some experience; The Way I Spent the End of the World from first-time writer-director Catalin Mitulescu is one of those revelations.
From the first shot of the film, we're drawn into a world of tremendous vitality and warmth, so powerful and convincing that everyone we see on screen is instantly a fully formed individual and fundamentally real. Set in Romania towards the end of the Ceausescu regime, The Way I Spent the End of the World depicts a few months in the life of one family as they deal with universal struggles like raising kids, finding work, and abiding by societal expectations. Daughter Eva (a forceful, magnetic Doroteea Petre) is the heart of the family: Wise and passionate, she possesses an intelligence so fierce it renders her dark beauty almost over powering. Poised on the cusp of adulthood, she expresses herself through questioning -- not necessarily because she disagrees, but as a way of spreading her wings, and exploring her impact on the world. One person Eva never questions, though, is her adored little brother Lalalilu. Ferociously played by Timotei Duma, Lalalilu is a marvelous character, filled with rambunctious, six-year-old energy and tough and perceptive beyond his years. (Duma gives such a convincing, natural performance in the role that one strongly suspects he's simply playing himself.)