Delicate Czech drama spends a day in the life of a six-year-old girl as she navigates family discord 

Tiny Lights

Source: Karlovy Vary

‘Tiny Lights’

Dir/scr: Beata Parkanova. Czech Republic/Slovakia. 2024. 75min

She’s not quite sure what it is, but six-year-old Amálka (Mia Banko) senses that something is off-kilter in the balance of her family home, in a sleepy Czech backwater village. The voices of her parents and her grandparents, muffled behind closed doors, have sharp edges; the words seem designed to wound. Over the course of a single day, spent with her grandparents foraging and swimming, Amálka starts to grasp the extent of the changes in her life. The third picture from Beata Parkanova is a finely cut gem of a film, a beguiling child’s eye view of a disintegrating marriage presented with a crystalline delicacy.

A beguiling child’s eye view of a disintegrating marriage 

Tiny Lights premieres in the main competition in Karlovy Vary, marking a return to the festival for Parkanova, who started out as an author of novels and children’s books. Her debut film Moments (2018) premiered in the festival’s East of the West competition; her second film, Word (2022), premiered in Main Competition where it won Best Director and Best Actor. In the gentle intimacy of the storytelling and the quality of the child performance (Banko is exceptional) there is a kinship with pictures such as Lila Avilés’s Totem and Celine Sciamma’s Petite Maman, stories that explore the collision of childhood magic and imagination with the cold, hard realities of family life. Tiny Lights should enjoy a healthy festival journey and, while it will likely connect most successfully with domestic audiences, it has a universalitythat could tempt further outlets.

There’s a personal element to the story for Parkanova, whose own childhood mirrors elements of Amálka’s. It’s not the first time that the director has taken inspiration from her family history – she recently branched into theatre with a play that was drawn from letters exchanged between her grandparents. But although the film is set in 1991 (when Parkanova was, like her protagonist, a six-year-old child), there’s a deliberately timeless, unrooted quality that makes this story inviting and relatable.

Rebuffed by the adults who sink into uneasy silence as soon as she opens the kitchen door, storybook in hand, Amálka makes her own entertainment. She hauls Mr Cat, a big, lazy black and white dope of a feline, up the stairs into her bedroom for illicit hugs. Mr Cat is usually banned from the house so this feels like both a small triumph and an indicator that the grown-ups have their minds on other things.

The flash point of the tension is between her Grandma (Veronika Zilkova) and her mother (Elizaveta Maximova). Her mother is “just not happy” with her life, and plans to pursue a career as an artist in Prague. Her grandmother uses Amálka and parental responsibilities as a stick with which to beat her daughter. Amálka loves them both, so she’s sensitive to the tension in the air: “Mummy, Granny, Mummy, Granny” she mutters as she plays on a swing with the child next door. She’s increasingly attuned and alert to social discord. Her grandparents claim that they never argue, but to Amálka’s ear, their conversation has an abrasive, combative quality that she attempts to diffuse.

Despite the storm clouds at home and the threat of upheaval, there’s joy in the day that Amálka spends with her grandparents. She duets with her Grandpa (Martin Finger) on a song about a graverobber who is eaten by a hyena, swims in glistening fresh water and picks wild blueberries. The curious, inquisitive camera, which shoots at hip-level to capture the child’s perspective, discovers a world painted in rich, heightened and saturated colours, evoking the vivid intensity of key childhood memories.

Interspersed in the story are little abstract segments, shots of Amálka’s mother that look as though they were captured on Super 8 film accompanied by melodic chimes. It’s not entirely clear what these represent – perhaps her mother’s creative spirit railing against the restrictions of family life – but somehow these sparkling little inserts work, catching the eye like the contents of Amálka’s secret box of treasures.

Production companies: Love.FRAME

International sales: REASON8 Films

Producer: Vojtech Fric

Cinematography: Tomas Jurícek

Production design: Petr Bakos, Josefina Bakosova

Editing: Alois Fisarek

Music: Michal Novinsk

Main cast: Mia Banko, Elizaveta Maximova, Veronika Zilkova, Martin Finger, Marek Geisberg