Directed By Lukas Moodysson. Starring Oksana Akinshina and Artiom Bogucharsky.

Lukas Moodysson is one of Sweden's leading and most exportable young directors, whose first two features - 'Fucking Amal' and 'Together' were major critical and commercial successes. 'Together' was particularly fine, a tender, funny, child's perspective on life in a commune in the Seventies, forgiving of the commune's members pretensions and warm and humane in its conclusion.

Perhaps Moodysson has tired of amusing optimism. 'Lilya 4-Ever' is an unremittingly bleak tale of a young Russian girl (Oksana Akinshina) who is abandoned by her mother, maltreated by her aunt and betrayed by her best friend. As life in her depressed and decrepit hometown become more unbearable, she is duped into fleeing to Sweden to become a prostitute.

The only light in her life is a strange relationship with Volodya, an equally traumatised ten-year old boy (brilliantly portrayed by Artiom Bogucharsky), with whom she shares the joys of basketball, vodka and glue-sniffing.

Lilya's character scarely develops through the film, apart from being subjected to various inequities. Her disloyal, cruel family is replaced by evil pimps, her surroundings barely change as she moves from the decaying squalor of Russian public housing to the high-rise hell of Malmo.

Moodysson seems overwhelmed by his choice of subject. In 'Together', the serious and the trivial rubbed shoulders, resulting in a patchwork of light and dark tones. In Lilya 4-Ever he is transfixed by the grim realities of the Western sex industry's traffic in Eastern European women.

His only way to insert a positive twist to the dire consequences of this miserable trade is a bizarre Christian literalism that sees the two protagonists sprout wings and inhabit a sun-kissed paradise. Moodysson claims he intended to show God's benevolence, but there is precious little evidence of a benevolent God in Lilya 4-Ever's harrowing plot.

The two lead actors are tremendous, adding to 2003's list of distinguished performances by children ('City of God', 'Pure'), though as in 'Pure', the tender, complex relationship between a beautiful teenage girl and a ten-year old boy is scarcely credible.

Moodysson is still a superb film-maker, as the evocative framing of the apartment blocks and crumbling submarine base of Lilya's hometown shows. His use of music is less sure-footed, as the ham-fisted techno that accompanies the opening shots of Lilya escaping shows. The combination of pounding beats over shots of a running girl is over-reminiscent of Tom Twyker's 'Run Lola Run' and the use of classical arrangements is clumsy and sentimental.

The film's sincerity and political relevance is not in doubt, but instead of using his full arsenal of cinematic weapons to tell this important story, Moodysson has opted to bludgeon his audience over the head. When all is dark, sometimes it's better to strike a light.

Luke McManus