Movies & TV / Reviews

Fantasia 2023: Stay Online Review

July 23, 2023 | Posted by Jeremy Thomas
Stay Online Image Credit: Fantasia IFF
The 411 Rating
Community Grade
Your Grade
Fantasia 2023: Stay Online Review  

Directed by: Yeva Strielnikova
Written by: Anton Skrypets & Yeva Strielnikova

Liza Zaitseva – Katya
Oleksandr Rudynskyi – Vitya
Hordii Dzuibnskyi – Sava
Roman Liakh – Andriy
Oleksandr Yarema – Uncle Tolik
Olesia Zhurakivska – Mother
Yevhen Kovyrzanov – Gavrilov
Anton Skrypets – Ryan

Image Credit: XYZ Films

Running Time: 110 minutes
Not Rated

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has been a prevalent part of our news cycles for a year and a half now. Here in the US, the story has been mixed in with everything else from the usual political shenanigans to the continuing garbage fire of Twitter, the entertainment guild strikes, the Titanic submersible fiasco and just about everything else. In Ukraine of course, they don’t have that luxury; it’s hard to pay attention to too much else when there are soldiers pushing through and bombs going off under the pretense of “denazifying” your home. While the world is watching, it’s another thing entirely to actually be living within the brutal reality that most of us are not seeing on nightly news.

Stay Online puts its camera on that reality. Yeva Strelnikova’s feature directorial debut is the first full-length film shot in Ukraine following the invasion. Making its world premiere at Fantasia International Film Festival, the action drama uses ScreenLife elements to provide a human face to the conflict and what it’s like to be living in the middle of a war.

Set two weeks after Russia began its invasion, Stay Online stars Liza Zaitseva as Katya, a woman living in Kyiv whose brother is a member of the Territorial Defense Forces trying to fight off the invasion. She is volunteering in a different fashion, as she’s been given a donated laptop to install a GPS phone tracking software that can be used in information-gathering for the defense.

As she waits for the package to download, she gets a message to the Telegram account of Andriy, original owner of the laptop, from his young son Sava (Dzuibnskyi). Andriy and his wife were supposed to escape and reunite with Sava, but they’ve gone missing. Despite her brother Vitya telling her to log out of the Telegram account, she finds herself drawn into helping try to locate Andriy and his wife. Dubbed “SuperKatya” by Sava, she finds herself navigating breadcrumbs of information that could put her, Vitya, her volunteering boyfriend Ryan, and others at extreme risk.

While there is a lot that can be politically unpacked about Stay Online, it works more universally as a human story. Katya starts off disconnected from most of the world, sitting in her bathroom as she trolls a Russian woman over the death of her son in the conflict. Her emotional journey leads her to make a connection with this young boy and teaches her the importance (and risks) of empathizing with someone you don’t know.

The themes carry through courtesy of the central performance from Zaitseva, who is compelling from start to finish. Acting against a screen isn’t an easy task; nor is appearing in virtually every frame of the film, but Zaitseva grounds the film and acts as our eyes and ears to feel a connection to Sava, Andriy, and the people in Katya’s life.

At the same time, the film makes a strong argument as a protest piece. It humanizes the people of Ukraine through Katya, Vitya and Sava in particular, but it’s also an unrelenting and often emotionally brutal film that does not shy away from directly showing the horrors that have happened there.

Fervent fans of the ScreenLife format may find some level of frustration when the Strielnikova diverges from the screens-only style at times; we see Katya from a POV away from the screen, and there is a score to the film that would ring false should this be fully immersed in the format. Fortunately, when it cuts from the format it does so with purpose, typically to allow Zaitseva to show depth to the character. Katya is trying to be strong to Sava and others she interacts with on the laptop, and these cuts let her vulnerability shine.

As a first-time feature director, Strielnikova has a tricky task here to accomplish in telling a distinctly and Ukrainian story intended for a wider audience. That leads to a few slip-ups in the production; for example, in one text conversation you can see part of the text bubble that supposedly hasn’t yet been received yet partially showing on the bottom of the screen. There also some awkward or seemingly English translations of the text. It’s possible that this was a translation error or if it’s intentional for some reason, but either way it does occasionally threaten to break immersion.

But in truth, that’s being a bit nitpicky. The technical aspects largely enhance the story, and the emotional journey is the core of this film, and that part hits hard. This isn’t a horror film, but there are moments certainly as horrifying as anything involving ghosts or maniacal slashers. And while it isn’t an easy watch, it packs an important gut punch and reminds us that while it’s drifted down a bit from the front pages, it’s a struggle that cannot be forgotten or ignored.

The Fantasia International Film Festival takes place in Montreal from July 20th through August 9th

The final score: review Good
The 411
Led by a knockout lead performance from Liza Zaitseva and potent emotional blows, Stay Online works both as a dramatic thriller and piece of guerilla protest filmmaking. Anton Skrypets & Yeva Strielnikova's script humanizes its subjects and puts a face on the headlines that have come out of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. While it's not an easy watch and there are some technical trip-ups, it's a movie that latches onto you and won't let go until well after the final frame.