LOLA opens with white text on a black background that states that the following footage was found in an abandoned Sussex home in 2021 and dates back to the 1940s. The film never breaks the illusion that it is found footage (spoiler: it is not). Shot in handheld black-and-white, it always reminds us that one of the characters in the film is doing the filming (or at least has later inserted newsreel footage), maintaining its frame narrative. This unique storytelling technique adds to the film’s realism – making it genre-defying and innovative whilst raising fascinating questions.
LOLA tells the story of two adult sisters, Thom (Emma Appleton) and Martha (Stefanie Martini), who live alone in a mansion after their parents died tragically. Thom is an inventor of the genius variety and has managed to create a machine (called LOLA) that can pick up broadcasts from the future. When the Second World War breaks out, they begin to put the machine to use to save lives, warning residents of London when bombing raids are imminent during the Blitz.
Initially, despite the narrative technique, the film feels rather familiar – and even cheesy. Music plays a crucial role in the film. Martha is fascinated by music from the future: David Bowie and Bob Dylan are particular favourites. In one scene she monologues about how deeply they speak to her. Thom wants desperately to save as many people as possible. At the height of their success, they sing a rendition of The Kinks, ‘You Really Got Me’ at a military function, to the crowd’s delight. In these scenes, the film feels almost tacky. The sisters’ fascination with music from the future that can delight a stuck-up, military audience feels like a black-and-white, World War Two version of the finale of Back to the Future.
Thankfully, this section is short-lived. It is only when things start to unravel and go wrong that the film truly finds its feet. And when it does, it tells a compelling and unique story that raises difficult questions. In particular, it delves into the issue (pertinent in the 1930s and 1940s) of the role of science and technology in helping or “saving” society. Thom’s determination to use LOLA strategically to save the maximum number of lives mirrors the Nazi obsession with technology and shaping modernity. In other sections, the film fascinatingly plays on exaggerated British nationalism, showing the exaggerated pride of Britons when LOLA is used to deter Nazi attacks.
The narrative technique, which insists that all footage was shot by characters in the film (or at least added in later as newsreel footage) and compiled by Martha, is intriguing and makes for a strong framing device. Sadly, it has the downside that candour between characters or introspection is in short supply. The characters are almost always aware that they are being filmed – or else are deliberately being filmed secretly. This limits the storytelling and frustrates our ability to empathise with characters. Whilst hints at a backstory for the two sisters are made to give insight into their motivation, overall as an audience, we feel removed from them.
However, this does not detract from what is an inspired take on a concept that at first glance sounds generic. The science fiction elements are rendered extremely realistic, the historical fiction elements believable. On the whole, LOLA is a highly original film that tells an interesting and new story and manages to surprise the audience along the way in a very welcome way.
LOLA had its UK premiere on August 15th at the Edinburgh International Film Festival.
Image credit: courtesy of EIFF press team, provided to The Student as press material.