Compartment No. 6

Have you ever had someone enter your life very briefly, yet make an indelible impact on you right at a moment when you needed a jolt? If so, you're very likely to enjoy Compartment No. 6. The movie, which was Finland's official Oscar entry in the Best International Feature Film category, is being released domestically by Sony Pictures Classics. It's a low-key story that invites you to observe how two characters begin the process of changing over the course of 107 minutes. There are no big epiphanies or dramatic monologues about how/why they're changing, just simple observances that contain great power if you pay attention to them.

Laura (Seidi Haarla) is a Finnish archeology student who rents a room from a slightly older woman named Irina (Dinara Drukarova) in Moscow. They have become lovers. Irina runs with a sophisticated group of friends that Laura, frankly, doesn't fit in with. The two were supposed to take a trip to Mermansk together to see the petroglyphs. Irina backed out, so Laura has decided to go on her own. We sense that she seeks to make herself feel more worldly.

On the train, she's stuck sharing a compartment with Ljoha (Yuriy Borisov), a brash Russian miner who promptly gets drunk and makes a crude comment to her. She contemplates getting off the train and returning home, but a phone call to Irina makes it clear that this relationship is on its last legs. That leaves her stuck with Ljoha. Absent any immediate support system, the two lean on each other, eating together in the dining car and venturing off the train during a layover to visit Ljoha's elderly mother figure.

Compartment No. 6 doesn't have a formal plot. Instead, it's structured as a series of scenarios between the two characters. Each one allows us to 1.) understand how lost Laura feels in life; and 2.) recognize that, for all his rough edges, Ljoha has more depth and sensitivity than it initially appears. We do not look at these people the same way at the end that we did at the beginning. At no point does either of them stop to discuss their personal troubles in any sort of detail, yet that doesn't matter. Both are stuck in life, in need of a push. Against all odds, they find that in one another.

Haarla is excellent as Laura, playing the character as someone who keeps her feelings close to the vest, while still using her eyes to express worlds full of sorrow and insecurity. She doesn't have to tell us Laura is hurting; we can see it. The actress creates a nice, offbeat chemistry with Borisov, who gradually peels away the layers of Ljoha to reveal a caring -- and even occasionally goofy -- side that isn't initially apparent. What makes these two strangers affect each other? Part of the answer is something each viewer will determine for themselves, based on their own life experiences. At the core, though, is that they're like a socket and plug. Their woes fit together in just the right way to create a current that gets them moving in the direction they need to go.

Director Juho Kuosmanen, adapting Rosa Liksom's novel, does a good job making that train compartment feel claustrophobic without making the movie itself feel that way. Early scenes have an appropriate visual drabness, representing the mental/emotional state of the characters. The last act, which takes place outdoors, is a bit brighter, suggesting a better day ahead. Compartment No. 6 feels no need to spell everything out for the audience. It achieves a look and a tone that tells you exactly what you need to know, then lets you watch as Laura and Ljoha touchingly connect in an unexpected manner.

This sweetly optimistic film is worth seeking out.

out of four

Compartment No. 6 is rated R for language and some sexual references. The running time is 1 hour and 47 minutes.