Where The Road Leads (2023): ‘Slamdance’ Review – Classic coming-of-age tales usually circle around a journey characterized by loss, personal growth, and some sort of epiphanic closure at the end. One has to overcome personal obstacles to transition from point A to point B, and the life lessons are embedded in this journey, not necessarily the destination.
But what happens when feelings of being stagnant and trapped in a small European village define a chunk of one’s coming-of-age journey? This is the heart of Nina Ognjanović’s genre-mash drama Where The Road Leads, where hope presents itself to Jana (Jana Bjelica) when a stranger visits her isolated village in Serbia.
Ognjanović unravels her narrative in a non-linear fashion, allowing the story to assume the shape of a labyrinth with no exits. The film opens with an exhausted, sweat-drenched Jana running towards someone or something with the frantic intensity of someone running against time.
Throughout two-thirds of Where The Road Leads, we are not given simple answers as to what Jana is obsessively seeking out. Still, when things finally come together, Ognjanović’s inescapable ouroboros looms into view. It is a devastating revelation one often has to contend with in life — stagnancy is here to stay when all dreams of escape are dashed into smithereens.
Freedom is but a mirage when you find yourself inexplicably rooted in a place that starts to suffocate you: such is the case with Jana, who goes to escape her Serbian village and loses herself in the thrills the wide world has to offer.
The catalyst for these events begins with the arrival of a stranger (Zlatan Vidovic), whose presence is viewed as an incursion of peace by the village folk. Having contended with a history of outsiders attempting to “modernize” the village for profits, the residents are wary of the newcomer, as his arrival coincides with the village losing power.
Although he explains that he has nothing to do with the construction roadwork that might have caused this power cut, the seeds of resentment have been sown, especially in the drunk duo Petar (Ninoslav Culum) and Pavle (Vladimir Maksimovic).
Perhaps, the only person who takes this looming threat seriously is Jana, who pins her hopes on the stranger to escape this so-called idyllic confinement. Things, obviously, are complicated, as the stranger, despite being a worldly man, seems to lament the absence of a home to return two subconsciously. In many ways, Jana and the stranger’s dynamic is doomed to fail.
Failure feels like a death in Where The Road Leads, a film that lingers on the minutiae of village life, which is simultaneously beautiful and frustrating. The socio-economic conditions that define life in such areas take a toll on its inhabitants — while some have made peace with reality, others find themselves longing for more, and rightly so.
Jana belongs to the latter group, her youthful naivety tinting her expectations of a world that exists to experience reality in all its agonies and ecstasies. The others are not so hopeful, as most of them indulge in defensive xenophobia to satiate their frustrations. In contrast, others assume a passive, voyeuristic role in the tragic incident that befalls halfway through the film.
At first glance, Where The Road Leads might come off as lacking in layers, given the seemingly simplistic nature of the events that unfurl. However, the film hides its depth in its visual language and unspoken dialogue. There is something unflinchingly authentic about the way in which the film is shot, sans pretense or affectation.
This is clearly a labor of love, a passionate declaration of an idea that takes hold of our minds or comes to define us, relayed in a way that is both realistic and poetic. Glances hold a terrible weight, along with the cadence of characters, who weave in and out of the picture effortlessly, forming a landscape that feels coherent and out-of-place at once.
Jana’s dreams, which are so hopelessly crushed in the end, are emoted in subtle and consistent ways. It is present in how she reads tea leaves, how she snakes her way through the familiar streets of her village, and how she weeps in the bushes, alone and jilted. A lot is conveyed with little.
Where The Road Leads is undoubtedly an understated gem, a tale about the road to freedom, which is often winding and ever-elusive. Sometimes, dead-ends are definitive, trapping us in some spaces forever. However, at other times, we are allowed a do-over at a seminal crossroads: would we succeed in choosing differently? Who knows.