Lilja (Oksana Akinshina) is a girl of around sixteen who lives on a grim estate in the former Soviet Union. Her mother and stepfather emigrate to the US, leaving Lilja to be watched over by an unfair, uncaring aunt. Lilja’s only friend is Volodya (Artiom Bogucharskij), a boy a couple of years younger than her, who keeps getting thrown out of home and stays with Lilja whenever she’ll let him. Lilja sees how a friend of hers manages to make some good money from prostitution, and although Lilja initially resists this, eventually she needs money so badly, she starts to sell herself, all the time dreaming of a better life. But when she meets a young man who would seem to offer her a way out, things don’t turn out the way she hoped (and that’s putting it mildly).

Many of the situations in Lilja 4-ever are instantly dramatic. Lilja’s mother writes from the US to renounce her guardianship. Her aunt moves into her old apartment. The seemingly kindly young man who insists that he doesn’t want to sleep with her turns out to be recruiting for a vicious pimp, who, once she has travelled to Sweden on a fake passport, keeps her locked in a sparse flat. These affecting developments are enhanced by the generally excellent performances, especially from Oksana Akinshina as Lilja and Artiom Bogucharskij as Volodya.

One has to say, though, that Lukas Moodysson, a name director after the acclaimed Show Me Love (1998) and Tillsammans/Together (2000), toys irritatingly with the mise-en-scène, turning up the volume of the music at particularly dramatic moments, then switching to a would-be naturalism, for example in the scenes in Lilja’s squalid Soviet apartment. Consequently the tone is inconsistent and the point of view is all over the place: sometimes we seem to be sharing Lilja’s outlook and experiences in a classic piece of filmic first-person narrative, and at other times we step back to observe her situation.

This is evident, for example, in the scene in which Lilja sniffs glue: that act is looked upon by an unobtrusive camera which seems to be pitying her situation, but in the subsequent scene Lilja and Volodya go running around together, and this is filmed with a slight fish-eye lens to convey the sense-changing properties of the glue. Or consider the way the film begins, at the end of the story, with Lilja stumbling, fleeing, through the streets of Malmo in Sweden: a sequence which we will come to understand is a terribly tragic moment for her. But this sequence, revisited at the end of the film, is edited so energetically, to the tune of a pounding music track, that it seems quite inappropriate for the tragedy of Lilja’s situation.

So Lilja 4-ever is at times an effective gesture towards a topic of enormous social and political importance, and by the end of the film, we have become immersed in Lilja’s story and feel terrible on her behalf. But the lingering feeling is of a character’s tragic life that would have benefited from a more tightly focused style.