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The fresh and the familiar collide to good effect in Eighteen (or 18, if you like), a coming-of-age tale set on the Bulgarian equivalent of Prom Night, when a near-lifetime of schooling comes to an end and old friends stare at each other and at the future, suddenly seeing both in a different light.

Being set in Bulgaria gives the whole undertaking its most obvious injection of freshness, but the foursome we meet, Nick (Martin Dimitrov) and Jeni (Milena Ermenkova), Sonya (Desislava Kasabova) and The Goat (Teodor Hristov) – he alternately acts the goat and gets people’s goat (maybe the expression carries over into Bulgarian?) – are familiar enough. Nick and Jeni belong in the alpha group who are simply expecting (and are expected) to make a go of life. The Goat and Sonya, they’re a bit more self-doubting, self-reflexive, less straightforward, the beta group.

Also fresh is the fact that the entire film is set in a car, after the prom has finished, while Nick is driving everyone home. This puts a pressure-cooker aspect to relations inside. Everyone’s a bit too close, forcing dramatic explosions as well as moments of introspection as one by one each person reflects on the fact that this a watershed evening in their lives.

Writer/director Atanas Hristoskov sketches the main part of the evening in broad strokes, mostly in flashback – the drink, the obligatory hot teacher all the boys would like a pop at, the bad dancing, the clandestine hook-ups, helicopter parents, guys trying too hard, it’s all here, but as a backdrop.

Instead, here we are, inside a car, on a wet night, the rain lashing down outside, the windows misted, other 18-year-olds drunkenly flashing by like comets, the neons of the street signs lighting up the interior while the foursome hash out personal and philosophical positions – from “did you sleep with that slut” to what is the ideal way to lead The Good Life – as dependable but slightly depressed Nick drives.

They’re an interesting foursome but the film seems most interested in the Goat, whose party-animal exterior is hiding something, though Nick’s brooding also suggests something is also bubbling along underneath. Jeni, the poor little rich girl, and Sonya, who wonders if life has already peaked, trail along slightly, though each one of this talented foursome of actors gets their moment in the spotlight.

Peter Bogdanovich’s The Last Picture Show and George Lucas’s American Graffiti might be obvious reference points but this seemed to me most like Dazed and Confused… in a car. And like Richard Linklater, Hristoskov is interested in spending time with the people who already suspect, at 18, that this is as good as life is ever going to be.

It’s bittersweet, downbeat, dour at times, but relentlessly interesting, because the focus keeps shifting and because Hristoskov and his DP Martin Balkanski use the camera so carefully, roaming around this tight space, at times in a “how are they doing that?” way. Films set in cars usually look like films set in cars – back projection or the obvious static car perched on a low-loader while the “driver” does nonsensical things with the wheel – but that’s not the case here, and it helps keep us inside the car with the characters rather than outside with the techies.

Hristoskov rings the changes. Between self-flagellatory moments, or moments of the group pondering life’s big questions, there are also odd moments of humour – a cat that’s been tricked out with party balloons by some passing reveller, scenes out on the streets where, I’m guessing, real 18-year-olds are glimpsed drunkenly heading home after a big night, or Nick repeatedly asking how his cock measures up compared to another of Jeni’s conquests… all amusing.

Plus shock reveals. Eighteen has a habit, just when you think it’s settling into a groove, of upending the certainties. It’s only a short film, at around 70 minutes, but it packs a lot in.

PS – the imdb was displaying the publicity art, summary and running time to a different Eighteen when I last looked, so the image and blurb in the sidebar is probably wrong.

© Steve Morrissey 2021

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