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In the first shot of Take Me Somewhere Nice, curtains billow for a full minute as a soft cricket song plays in the background and shadows flit behind their folds. Are we lurking voyeuristically outside some hushed domicile? How many people are behind the window, and what could they be doing? Suddenly, techno beats drown out the insect melody. In the following shot, the drapes are replaced with dressing room curtains in a juniors clothing boutique, the same throbbing house music playing in the distance. A pensive brunette with huge brown eyes and a forehead scar stares into the mirror, her body quadrupled in each of its panes, a delicate heart pendant hanging from her neck. “I can’t decide,” she says, pressing a red dress against its lilac velour twin that clings to her body. “I want both.”

If the stakes of Ena Sendijarević’s debut film initially seem low, it’s a foil for the unpaved crossroads its listless heroine encounters later. Informed by the director and writer’s own experience as a Bosnian refugee to the Netherlands, Take Me Somewhere Nice follows Alma (Sara Luna Zoric) as she bids “ciao” to her weathered single mom and sets off to visit her ailing father in a native country she no longer knows. Alma’s age is unknown, and no talk of school or work helps to contextualize. She could be 16, she could be 22; the lack of clarity seems to suggest that it doesn’t really matter. (Zoric was 19 when the film was shot.) Her older cousin, Emir (Ernad Prnjavorac), is charged with her care, though he hasn’t seen Alma for over a decade. From the moment she steps into the empty parking lot of the Sarajevo airport, it’s clear he’s not a staid guardian. “You’ve grown up,” he says, peering up from the cellophane-wrapped backseat of his rusty hatchback. “So have you,” she says as she appears, in her lilac dress and white socks, like a worried little girl.

Sara Luna Zoric as Alma in Ena Sendijarević’s Take Me Somewhere Nice (Photo by Emo Weemhoff. © 2021, Dekanalog)

For most of the film, Zoric channels a quiet unease that, no matter how dire the circumstances, never succumbs to helplessness. Hauling her white suitcase, floor after floor, up Emir’s towering housing block, Alma does not seem entirely surprised that her cousin hasn’t offered to help, or that he ditches her immediately after. As eager as she is to escape the doldrums of tanning with her mother under the tepid Dutch sun, as curious as she is to see what her country has become, she is keenly aware that she is now an outsider, reliant on the largesse of others who may not have her best interests in mind. A waitress addresses her in English, instead of Bosnian; she gets locked out of both her roller bag and Emir’s barren flat. When her cousin’s self-appointed “intern,” Denis (Lazar Dragojevic), spots her sleeping against a concrete wall, he comes across as a gangly knight in shining track jacket. “Do you need help?” he asks, removing an eyelash from her cheek and blowing it away. “Yes … I think I do,” she replies fuzzily.

Cue a cutesy keyboard chord that disrupts the vérité diegesis whenever Alma indulges in a girlish reverie of what might be to come. “You know what they say about Dutch girls?” Denis asks impishly in the early morning light of Emir’s living room. “That you’re easy.” “And you?” she responds, nonplussed. “Are you easy or difficult?” After Alma confirms that Denis knows how to get to Podveležje, the remote plateau where her father’s hospital is located, the keyboard tune resurfaces, suggesting that her attraction to him is at least somewhat predicated on his ability to “take her somewhere nice,” or at least nicer, than her cousin’s drab confines. Alma clearly grasps the transactional potential of her sexuality, but also appears genuinely interested in each of her conquests. Her actions are neither celebrated nor shamed under Sendijarević’s helm. 

From Andrew Arnold’s Fish Tank (2009)to Karen Maine’s Yes, God, Yes (2019), movies about lusty female adolescents are having a moment over the past decade. These recent films complicate the tropes of sexual deflowering or debasement that seem inevitable in the genre. That the raison d’etre for womanhood was sexual initiation — often at the hands of a more experienced (or predatory) figure — was historically taken as a cinematic given. More recent coming-of-age films acknowledge, and often honor, the complexity and weight of young women’s sexual desire, and the feeling of power it can grant, whether real or illusory.

Jasna Djuricic as Jovana (foreground, l.) and Sara Luna Zoric as Alma (foreground, r.) in Ena Sendijarević’s Take Me Somewhere Nice (Photo by Emo Weemhoff. © 2021, Dekanalog)

Both road-trip movie and bildungsroman, Take Me Somewhere Nice plumbs the fraught power of female sexuality via utterly asynchronous tones: it is at once sun-blanched and steamy, droll and despairing. Cinematographer Emo Weemhoff hovers over, under, and aslant his subjects, granting a stylized view of Alma’s journey that is at odds with Bosnia’s Brutalist urban architecture and desolate rural terrain. Alma herself appears by turns world weary and girlish, smiling only once or twice in the whole film, often framed against lurid pastel walls, donning, in the last third of the film, an oversized men’s white polo shirt as a makeshift minidress.

Though no one gets naked in the Balkan sun, the film is replete with subtle (and not-so-subtle) eroticism: Alma’s palm squeezing a lone orange in a fridge filled with bottled water, her hand stroking her calf while watching Denis on the couch, her bare thigh swung over her suitcase as she battles its lock with an army knife. The slowness of the camera as it grazes her body recalls early Sofia Coppola, sans the filtered objectification. As Jessa Crispin recently wrote, “[Coppola] doesn’t watch women so much as she watches men watching women”; Weemhoff’s lens instead captures Alma as she seems to imagine herself: lonely, hungry, patiently observant — a sensual empiricist in a homeland that never feels like home. When she and Denis first meet, there is clearly an attraction, followed by Frenching and screwing in a Cold War-era elevator. Sex is as rocky as it is rapturous, the stones of Podveležje a stand-in for both the film’s harsh emotional terrain and the flinty resilience of the Bosnian people.

From a Western, liberal vantage point, this movie is not always comfortable viewing; Alma has several suitors in the film — none of them, to be sure, a suitable match for a woman of her age and sensitivity. Misogyny and homophobia run deep, and Alma’s pursuit of her own desires, sexual and otherwise, is often subject to the whims of men who see her as either a burden or a thrill. “I don’t like touching a man’s thing or a thing a man’s thing has touched,” Denis admits, slut-shaming any woman who dares have another partner. “Men only care what other men think of them,” asserts Jovana (Jasna Djuricic), the middle-aged lounge singer Alma meets in a hotel lobby. “Artist, prostitute, what’s the difference. We are all begging for attention and a little money.” When Alma gets plastered with a much older politician, Emir and Denis rescue her by jumping him outside the club and stuffing her into the back of his Range Rover, which they steal for the next leg of the trip. “Did you guys rape me?” she asks coolly as she awakens; Denis snickers in response.

Lazar Dragojević as Denis (l.) and Sara Luna Zoric as Alma (r.) in Ena Sendijarević’s Take Me Somewhere Nice (Photo by Emo Weemhoff. © 2021, Dekanalog)

Whatever physical advantage Emir and Denis wield, it is arguably countered by Alma’s Dutch citizenship and the privileges it affords. For her, Bosnia is a vacation, if for somber motivations; for them it is reality. That Take Me Somewhere Nice is not the translated title, but the title, nods to how effortlessly Western, specifically Anglophone, power can enable pleasant escapism. The “somewhere nice” is not the empty country roads upon which the trio sojourn, so much as a fantasy of being swept away — ideally by a doting male suitor. “I hate the Netherlands,” Alma tells Denis early on. “Cold weather, cold people.”

But Bosnia isn’t any warmer than the Netherlands, and Alma is equally adrift in both. Sarajevo has transformed since her childhood; no orange juice is on offer at the mall café, but rather trendy raspberry and rose hibiscus. Her father’s house is a concrete box on a windy, barren tract of land; his fish float in their aquarium like shriveled orange slices. For its aspirational title, Sendijarević’s dramedy is resolutely anti-nostalgic, at the same time recognizing the integrity of Bosnian patriotism. “Do you want to get out of here?” Alma asks Emir en route to Podveležje. “Of course not,” he responds. “I love my country.”

In the final scene, after an intense tryst with Denis, who has just been brutally beaten, Alma splashes her inner thighs in the waters of the sea. Rather than a loss of innocence, Take Me Somewhere Nice suggests that, for so many, such innocence was never available.

Take Me Somewhere Nice is now in theaters.

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Eileen G'Sell is a regular contributor to Salon, VICE, and the Los Angeles Review of Books, among other publications. In 2019 she was nominated for the Rabkin prize in arts journalism. She teaches at Washington...