‘Yuni’ review: a tender and thoughtful Indonesian coming-of-age story

An Indonesian teen girl’s personal desires are stifled by gendered cultural expectations in this lyrical character study

Over the past decade, Kamila Andini has proven to be one of the most invigorating filmmakers in Indonesian cinema. Her first two films, The Mirror Never Lies and The Seen and Unseen, garnered international awards and critical acclaim for their sensitive portraits of marginalised local communities facing sociocultural issues. That quality streak continues with her poetic and lyrical third feature, Yuni, which recently won the prestigious Platform Prize at the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival.

Set in the rural Indonesian town of Serang, the film centres on the bright 16-year-old schoolgirl Yuni (Arawinda Kirana). Up till now, the most concerning aspect of her young life has been the constant trouble she gets into for stealing her classmates’ purple belongings to sate her unhealthy obsession with the colour. But otherwise Yuni is a straight-A student in line for a college scholarship – which is the only way someone in her financial position can continue her education.

Yuni begins the film on the cusp of graduation, considering a world of possibility, and like most people her age, unsure of what to do. But her personal desires soon become moot when she realises that the adults around her will be the ones shaping her future. In conservative and traditional areas like Serang, it is actually customary for girls Yuni’s age (and sometimes even younger) to get married. And so she is suddenly deluged with several marriage proposals that she desperately tries to fend off. While her family and friends all view matrimony as a blessing – a gateway to simple domestic comfort – Yuni sees it as a trap that will curtail her freedom for the rest of her life.

Yuni movie review Kamila Andini Indonesia Arawinda Kirana
Arawinda Kirana in ‘Yuni’. Credit: Press

Andini and screenwriter Prima Rusdi deftly balance Yuni’s rising frustration with the narrow gender role society is foisting upon her with naturalistic scenes of her embracing life as a teenager, clinging to shreds of private autonomy away from judging eyes. Although she goes to a school where the Islamic club has enforced mandatory virginity tests for female students and banned music, her social life outside is filled with curiosity and self-discovery. Some of the film’s best scenes simply involve Yuni and her classmates lying around secluded fields as they furiously giggle through awkward conversations about boys, sex, orgasms and masturbation.

Yuni even forges a friendship with an older beautician named Suci, a happy divorcee whose liberal, Westernised lifestyle presents an alluring counterpoint to the advice of those closest to her. In a moment of boundary-pushing rebellion, Yuni accompanies Suci to a nightclub where she drinks alcohol and dances the night away. And while she’s clearly not ready to get married, she does spend a lot time pining for her handsome literature teacher Mr. Damar (Dimas Aditya).

Meanwhile, a shy younger boy named Yoga (Kevin Ardilova) is also harbouring a similar crush on her. Although his attempts to talk to her are adorably bumbling, a blossoming bond develops when he uses his literary talent to help Yuni with a tough assignment – to analyse a classic love poem entitled “Rain in June” (a poem that Andini has cited as the film’s inspiration).

Key to the film’s success is Arawinda Kirana’s magnificent performance as Yuni, a girl who feels the walls of religious restrictions and patriarchal societal expectations ceaselessly closing in on her. Arawinda vividly brings to life Yuni’s suffocating inner turmoil, highlighting her character’s innocence, hopes, fears and search for identity with marvellous expressiveness. Going through adolescence is confusing and challenging in any environment, which is why the coming-of-age genre has proven to be so timeless. But the cultural specificity and sensitive authenticity that Andini imbues such a familiar narrative with is what elevates Yuni above its contemporaries.

Details

  • Director: Kamila Andini
  • Starring: Arawinda Kirana, Kevin Ardilova, Dimas Aditya, Marissa Anita, Asmara Abigail
  • Release date: December 9 (Indonesia)
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