Finnish indie cinema does not often get much attention in mainstream media, but occasionally "findie" titles manage to get noticed even outside of the country, a somewhat well-known example being the 2005 sci-fi parody Star Wreck: In the Pirkinning. Another findie locally available in mainstream video stores is Miika Ullakko's 2006 drama Graffiti Within that won the Best Debut Feature award at the Århus Festival of Independent Arts in Denmark and was eventually followed by a sequel called What Became of Us (2009). The sequel even got a short theatrical run in Finland, a major feat for a findie with no funding from the Finnish Film Foundation.
Graffiti Within is the story of three people in their late teens who have been close friends since early childhood. Toni (Olli Similä) has moved to Helsinki several years ago, while Jake and Erika (director Ullakko and Maria Uusikylä) have remained in their native Lappeenranta until moving to the capital too after graduating from gymnasium. They look forward to meeting Toni again, but are surprised to find him living in the garage of an apartment building free of rent. The charismatic Toni persuades his old friends to move in with him and his two car mechanic pals Däni and Kanki (Zagros Manuchar and Antti Laakso), but the initially fun bohemian lifestyle cannot last for long: the presence of Jake's new girlfriend Polina (Polina Chalyguina) is putting a strain on his close friendship with Erika who has always been like a sister to him. Toni also seems to have something dark to hide about his past.
According to IMDb, Graffiti Within is Ullakko's first directing job and besides playing the lead role he is also credited as the producer, writer, cinematographer and editor as well as the designer of the sound, visual effects, sets and lighting. Typically for independent cinema, it can be guessed that his family has helped out a lot too; several other people with the name Ullakko appear in the credits. The film's evident indie roots show clearly in the general roughness of many aspects of filmmaking: the constantly grainy cinematography, frequently bumpy editing and amateur acting take a while to get used to, but eventually make the movie feel more unique than it would if everything was smoothly professional. Some of the wide shots of scenery actually look pretty nice and even the car chase looks surprisingly convincing despite the obviously low budget. However, some songs on the soundtrack are pretty tacky and occasionally the screen looks too dark; I nevertheless prefer the grainy look to the flat, dreary TV-like photography of many other low budget films.
I am a bit undecided about the way the story deals with young people's relationships and dreams for the future. Jake and Erika's relationship feels unrealistically close for "just friends" and the Toni character does not always feel very believable with his philosophical rants about the meaning of life (Similä's noticeable mannerisms in the role don't really help either). The dialogue in general doesn't always ring true either. On the other hand, Maria Uusikylä is great as the seemingly perky but secretly insecure and neglected best friend Erika I felt sorry for her and could strongly sympathize with her loneliness. Near the end the story takes a turn towards flat-out melodrama and dangerously walks on the line between effective and corny, but ultimately I think the mood stays on the better side of the border again, I attribute this to the natural charm of Uusikylä. The performance of director Ullakko himself is passable for a homebaked movie like this and the other actors succeed decently enough as well, even though they naturally get less screen time than the lead trio.
At the end of the day, I can say I enjoyed Graffiti Within even after a rewatch. What it loses in technical prowess, it wins back with the atmosphere of enthusiasm for the art of cinema that gets conveyed to the viewer as well. It is also nice to see Finnish movies about young people being made by young filmmakers eager to jump straight into action without spending years in films schools (Ullakko, born in 1986, has said he prefers to have no formal training in his passion). It will be interesting to see how Ullakko's film career will develop in the future, but at any rate Graffiti Within makes a competent starting point for it.
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