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Dome Karukoski can be called one of the most prominent Finnish film directors right now, having achieved success among both the public and popular critics with all of his films so far. Following the hip hop-flavoured romance Beauty and the Bastard (2005) and the serious drama The Home of Dark Butterflies (2008), Karukoski's third feature film Forbidden Fruit examines common themes of finding one's place in the world when leaving one's home for the first time.
The teenaged Maria and Raakel (Amanda Pilke and Marjut Maristo) are two best friends who have grown up in Conservative Laestadian families in Ostrobothnia, Finland and are strong in their faith. However, Maria is turning from a girl to a woman and longs to see more in life than what the basically loving but highly patronizing Christian community can offer. Having turned 18, she moves to Helsinki and starts experimenting with various temptations the big city has to offer. Concerned for her safety and redemption, the community leaders send her friend Raakel to look after her and hopefully to convince her to return to her roots. After initial reservations, the city life starts tempting Raakel too, especially after she meets a nice cinephile boy named Toni (Joel Mäkinen).
At first the premise sounds terribly old-fashioned, like a cautionary tale about the hazards of sinful cities straight from the 1950s. Luckily the idea of the movie is not to contrast the conservative country life to wild urban partying; the opposing environments provide only the backdrop for personal development of Maria and Raakel. Many viewers can probably identify with the girls' budding feelings of sexuality and sense of freedom even if such themes are not anything groundbreakingly new in the youth film genre. An extra twist is provided by the girls' connection through faith and the effect their strict upbringing has left on their view of life: under the fun-loving surface Maria has a fearful heart, unlike Raakel who has never dared to even think about rebellion until tasting it personally.
The film does not overtly criticize the conservative Laestadian movement even if the members' narrow-minded views about things like contraception, television, pop music, make-up and young people's relationships are at odds with mainstream opinions. It cannot really be seen as sympathizing with the movement either; the social shunning of former members like Maria's sister Eeva (Malla Malmivaara) is not exactly something a truly loving person would do. The storyline of the hard-drinking, promiscuous Eeva is among the weaker aspects of the plot anyway, I think it has been left feeling somewhat unfinished and heavy-handed compared to the mostly balanced tone. On the other hand, it adds to the spectrum of possible fates people may get after leaving the movement: some decide to stay away and feel better than ever, some realize the old-fashioned lifestyle is the best for them after all while others never really find out what would be good for them (much like Eeva in the film). In a way Eeva's emotional problems could be seen as stemming from the conservative movement's influence, but she might as well be unstable by nature, so it is left up for the viewer to decide if her character should be understood as criticism towards strict conservatism or not.
Visually Forbidden Fruit is real eye-candy. The rich colours of the cinematography by Tuomo Hutri marvelously capture the beauty of both urban and rural environments and Karukoski's direction flows forward effortlessly. The young protagonists Pilke and Maristo do their parts well even if they constantly look too young to be even allowed in bars, but I guess that's how a lot of young adults look these days (I also still tend to see Pilke primarily as the shy little singer girl from Perttu Leppä's hilarious 2003 comedy Pearls and Pigs). In summary, Forbidden Fruit is a very satisfactory portrayal of the shaping of one's identity at the tender age between childhood and adulthood. The Christian background can be generalized to symbolize any safe home from which young people have to eventually leave to face the "dangerous" world on their own, so in the end the overhanging themes of the story are universal for people in or outside of any religion. Of the three Karukoski films I have seen at the time of writing this, I would call Fruit the best.
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