Gritty. Powerful. Complicated. Real. There are multiple words I would use to describe Võta või jäta (Take It or Leave It in English), which is a new Estonian drama from writer/director Liina Trishkina-Vanhatalo. I would also call it a powerful feminist film.
Now, if that word makes you want to stop reading and close the browser, let me explain. I don’t mean that this film is anti-men or that it’s a film that only women will enjoy – in fact, it’s the exact opposite. What’s refreshing about Võta või jäta is that it shows a single-parent story from the father’s point of view for a change.
Young and Single
Erik, the lead character, is a young, working-class guy who numbs the boredom of a manual labor job with nights out drinking and partying with friends. I was surprised to discover later in the film that the character is actually 30 years old, but still behaving in a way that I associate with university students or early 20s. However, the portrayal of a low-income lifestyle, where sometimes people have to accept the current circumstances because there aren’t really many alternatives, is relatable across cultures.
Surprise, You’re a Father!
Erik’s life is turned upside-down when he learns that his ex-girlfriend, Moonika, is having a baby that she doesn’t want (whether she suffers from post-partum depression or makes her own decision is open to interpretation). Erik faces the impossible choice of taking on full responsibility for a daughter that he didn’t even know he was having or giving up the child for adoption. I’ll try to avoid too many spoilers beyond that decision for anyone planning to watch the film.
Gender Roles and Uncomfortable Subjects
Showing the idea of parenting from the father’s perspective puts so many unfair expectations in a side by side comparison onscreen. While the hospital staff gives Erik some extra time and patience to make his decision, no one in the film seems to have much faith in him a) taking on this responsibility or b) doing a good job at it. On the other hand, multiple characters are convinced that Moonika will “snap out of it” and that her post-partum symptoms (often suggested by people uncomfortable talking about it) will just disappear. Rarely does a character give space to the idea that a woman might just not want to be a mother.
The portrayal of two equally young and unprepared parents shows how unfair these expectations are to both sides. Everyone assumes that Moonika will naturally just know how to be a mother, but few people want to take the time to teach Erik how to be a father. His own parents maintain a traditional division of gender roles, with mom being in charge of domestic duties. Erik’s father seems to encourage him to “be a man” (meaning have a drink and leave parenting to the women) even though Erik doesn’t have a partner to fulfill the necessary duties that this requires. His mother seems both annoyed at having to help, but proud of her skills and reluctant to share any of her expertise with her son. This family portrayal succeeds in not painting anyone as a hero or the villain of the story, but shows how subtle influences contribute to the situation.
One cultural difference that I couldn’t help but notice was how the social safety net played a role. Watching this film as an American, I looked at every minute that the parents or the baby spent in the hospital as an expensive luxury. I looked at the resources that the child needed in the first years of life (car seats, diapers, clothes, etc.) and wondered where they came from without a baby shower. I was curious if an Estonian father would receive state help in the early years of a child’s life, and was reminded of my frustration that American parents don’t receive any mandatory financial support from the government.
But more than any of these differences, I was impressed with how honestly the film approached the difficulty of parenting. A romantic comedy would have had Erik take one walk through the park, fall in love with someone who wanted a child, and they all would have lived happily ever after. Võta või jäta is not that kind of story. Instead, the film shows how much parents have to sacrifice, the constant lack of sleep, and some of the difficult details (e.g. who watches your kid when you go to work?) that single parents face.
An Open-Ended Story
I won’t spoil the ending, but I will say that both the director and the actors managed to create a story so compelling that I didn’t want it to end. I was left with unanswered questions and was almost disappointed to see the credits start rolling. If you apply the entertainment industry saying of “always leave an audience wanting more” then Võta või jäta definitely succeeded. I would be right back in a cinema seat to watch a sequel that explained where their lives went next.