An imperfect, attention-grabbing debut feature from Romanian actor-turned-director Alina Grigore, “Blue Moon” is named for a song, though not the one you might expect: a somewhat mordant local lullaby, sung late in proceedings, at a point when any hope of rest has long deserted its frazzled protagonist. Still, it’s impossible to approach the film without that Rodgers & Hart lonely-hearts standard running through your head — which, accidentally or otherwise, turns out to be an effective bit of misdirection. For the more time we spend with 22-year-old Irina (Ioana Chitu), the clearer it becomes that what she’s missing isn’t a love of her own or someone to care for: What she really, really needs is just to be left alone for longer than five minutes at a time.
That’s easier said than done in what turns out to be a raucously dysfunctional family drama, in which a multitude of conflicts play out through abrasive yelling matches, untamed bouts of violence and even an overturned dinner table or two. Whenever Irina tries to escape the noise, it follows her like a swarm of wasps. Grigore conducts this symphony of physical and psychological chaos with gusto: The film’s stridency gets under your skin, which is what landed it the top prize at the recently concluded San Sebastian Film Festival, and will earn it consideration from distributors schooled in the extended ripples of Romanian cinema’s by now not-so-new wave. But even at 85 minutes, it’s a wearying watch, somewhat overcranked and overplotted toward the end of its running time, and heavily dependent on Chitu’s excellent performance to steer us through patches of narrative confusion and anarchy.
“Blue Moon” effectively announces its tone to the audience with an opening scene that rudely jolts Irina from slumber: Woken with a punch and a telling-off by her loose-cannon sister, Vicki (Ilinca Neacsu), she is propelled directly into a typical day of familial discord. Irina and Vicki live and work on a rural mountain retreat owned by their extended family, and run by their older cousins Sergiu (Mircea Silaghi) and Liviu (Mircea Postelnicu), both hard, abusive taskmasters. Since their parents’ divorce, their father has relocated to London, while their mother has seemingly checked out of life entirely, leaving their daughters at Sergiu and Liviu’s minimal mercy. Irina’s dreams of studying at university have landed her in a patriarchal tug-of-war between her father, urging her to join him in London, and her cousins, who aren’t above emotional blackmail to retain her free labor. All she wants is to escape to Bucharest — mere hours away by car, though in her predicament, it may as well be the other side of the world.
It’s partly this impulse that leads Irina into an ill-advised affair with Tudor (Emil Mandanac), an older, married actor from Bucharest, following a drunken, dubiously consensual hookup at a party. That Tudor’s exploitation of the younger woman leads to intensified intimacy rather than admonishment is one of several ways in which Grigore’s spiky, undisciplined script defies expectation. More predictable is the arc of animosity between the sisters and their boorish cousin-guardians, which prompts at least one too many samey scenes of hotheaded confrontation between them, with the hair-trigger temper of Liviu, in particular, frequently activated for general dramatic sound and fury. Toward the end, all this escalating conflict barrels into slight incoherence, while it’s sometimes hard to keep track of the gnarled family tree. In particular, a subplot involving Sergiu and his wife’s attempt to secure a child for adoption feels like an extraneous element in a story not short on drama.
But Grigore has a sharp, live-wire sense of scene-building, and a confident knack for pushing her actors — from the alert, fresh-faced Chitu to Romanian new wave stalwart Vlad Ivanov, cast against type as one of the kinder family elders — into exciting, unsafe territory. She likewise has keen formal command of a roving, restless camera and an eye (and ear) for odd local detail: The traditional wooden farm gong on which Irina frequently takes out her frustrations becomes a defining element of the filmmaking, percussively punctuating scenes and emotional movements of the story. There’s much in “Blue Moon” to make one anticipate Grigore’s sophomore effort, even if it occasionally leaves us as frustrated and overstimulated as its flailing protagonist.