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(The 2019 Annapolis Film Festival, out of Annapolis, MD, featured 70 films in 4 days and ran March 21-24. Lead critic Chris Reed was on the ground there and offered his usual compelling slate of reviews and interviews! Like what you see here on Hammer to Nail? Why not share just $1.00 per month via Patreon to help keep us going?)

Just 50 miles of the Baltic Sea separate Helsinki and Tallinn, and with some linguistic roots in common it should come as little surprise to find post-Soviet Estonians working in Finland, much as happens everywhere in the world where disadvantaged neighbors see better opportunities next door. So begins Take It or Leave It, Estonia’s 2018 submission to the Foreign-Language Oscar race (it was not nominated), as Erik (Reimo Sagor) plies his construction skills where they will earn the most money. The locals aren’t too happy (they never are, no matter the country), but he’s a tough one, so to hell with them. He can handle rough. What he can’t handle, it turns out, is the sight of a baby with no one to care for her, as we discover when a phone call drags him back home, where ex-girlfriend Moonika (Liis Lass), in a postpartum funk, tells him that she wants to give away their daughter (about which Erik knew nothing until that moment). Though an irresponsible, drunken lout, he is touched by the little girl, and decides to raise her on his own. Good luck.

Soon, he is back home with his own parents, leaning on them to show him what to do. It doesn’t quite work out, but with a new job renovating an apartment, he can afford a place of his own. His daughter, Mai, does what babies do, keeping Erik frazzled, which his drinking doesn’t help. Still, there’s love in his eyes, and despite many questionable decisions, he seems to be getting better at the whole dad thing. After a near-catastrophic lapse in judgment, he finally settles down, and so we flash-forward to Mai at 3, a perfect routine in place. Time for Moonika to show up and complicate matters once more. Like an Estonian Kramer vs. Kramer, in which Meryl Streep and Dustin Hoffman compete for custody of their son, the final act of Take It or Leave It centers on a court battle, as well, though how it ends may surprise you. Daddy may not know best, but he is not afraid to act.

It’s interesting to me that the film was directed by a woman, Liina Trishkina, given its relentless focus on the male protagonist, with the female characters barely sketched out. The portrayal of Moonika, despite the well-documented side effects of depression (i.e., she can’t help it), skirts dangerously close to negative caricature. Erik’s mom comes across as a one-note battle-axe, her milquetoast husband the logical result of a lifetime of emasculation. Only Erik is afforded genuine growth. Still, the film is a fascinating study in how this stunted (is it mom’s fault?), barely conscious human being rises to the occasion and finally shows that he can think about something beyond himself. Sagor, aided by a few scars on his face, looks like a bruiser (an eventual light beard softens the face), his hooded eyes masking genuine emotions within. See it for him, and the gentle arc of the narrative, so minimalist at times that we don’t see the big reversals just around the corner. Despite its issues, I’ll take it, rather than leave it.

– Christopher Llewellyn Reed (@ChrisReedFilm)

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Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator. A member of both the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA) and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, he is: lead film critic at Hammer to Nail; editor at Film Festival Today; formerly the host of the award-winning Reel Talk with Christopher Llewellyn Reed, from Dragon Digital Media; and the author of Film Editing: Theory and Practice. In addition, he is one of the founders and former cohosts of The Fog of Truth, a podcast devoted to documentary cinema.

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