Bulgaria’s entry into the 2014 European Union Film Festival, July, takes its name from July Morning—a practice of staying up all night to greet the sun as it rises on July 1st. But for all that the tradition gives the film its name, it’s only a small—albeit happy—part of the film. In many ways, that’s because July is about the clash between the old and the new, and in the new world writer and director Kiril Stankov is presenting, there isn’t much room for the old ways anymore.
It’s the fundamental struggle that weaves its way throughout July’s otherwise scattered plots. The movie opens with a series of flashbacks, or forwards, before finally embarking on its road trip quest for the coast and ending with a fiery bit of vigilante justice. Dana (Kasiel Noah Asher) and Dju (Paraskeva Djukelova) are old friends whose random meeting in the street ends years of separation. But just when it seems the two are taking a trip to reconnect, Dju invites another friend, Lilli (Yana Titova) along, setting July up as a feminist escape.
As the trio search for a place to set up camp, Stankov uses their journey to comment on how Bulgaria’s exit from communism altered the country and its people. Camping on the beaches—provided they haven’t been taken over by tourists and hotels—is now forbidden and Dana and Dju’s hippie attire feels woefully out-of-place in the burgeoning cosmopolitan of Sofia. It’s no better further out in the country where the women clash with the new order of thugs and black market businesses that are now running their former idyll.
But Stankov’s commentary, and the women’s more private struggles, get swallowed up by his bigger theme on crime turning Dju, Dana and Lilly from relatable characters into over-the-top chainsaw-brandishing heroines. It’s a loud ending that doesn’t fit the rest of the film. The interpersonal relationships and the development of the characters gets lost in a bigger condemnation of the country’s flashier issues. Whatever it is that drove Dana to return home to “waste away” is never revealed and Dju’s bender and the reasons behind it stay shrouded in mystery. Lilly, whose quiet persona feels more accessible than the larger-than-life rebels of the women with her, never stops feeling like a third wheel as she watches the women unravel helplessly–even if she does end up forming a bridge between the past and present.
Then again, maybe Stankov’s violent swerve away from these issues comes from a desire to offer the film a happier ending, one where the players find themselves empowered in some small way to effect change for the better. Otherwise the picture he paints is of a new, darker world where the old ways and their followers have no choice but to die out. It’s a stark conclusion to reach, and for all its problems, July’s blunt humour can’t help but want to refute that idea.