Nikola is a young teen in Bosnia, trying to survive in the middle of wartime. He’s also a math genius: his mind is constantly engaged with math, and he even uses his abilities to make a run across Sarajevo’s infamous Sniper Alley, in order to bring his family food and water or attend a meeting with his high school math club.
One day he discovers a surprise: he has qualified to compete in the International Math Olympiad in Canada. It’s also his ticket out of the war zone for good. But in order to do that, he has to come to terms with leaving his family behind.
Writer-director Sabina Vajraca’s short drama is both an expansive story about the consequences and costs of war and an intimate coming-of-age story of a uniquely gifted young person. Told with both expansive sweep in the filmmaking and intimacy of emotion and thought in the storytelling, it engages through an unusually broad canvas to tell a story that’s consistently engaging and compelling.
Many coming-of-age stories involve a young hero or heroine embracing the larger, more adult world of independence, often by leaving home and family behind. The conduit for independence is sometimes a relationship, as in a romance, or a quest, like many fantasy stories. But in this case, it is both the drive to fulfill a talent and a raging war that propel the character and the writing and storytelling weave both in an exceptionally connected way.
Nikola uses his abilities to survive the war, illustrated in a remarkably tense and high-stakes situation in the film’s first half. This compelling, gripping sequence — constructed with camerawork and editing that is as agile and suspenseful as in any Hollywood thriller — affirms not just Nikola’s gifts, but also the visceral dangers of the Bosnian war, especially on the families and children caught in the crossfire.
As Nikola’s story progresses, the story also widens in scope as his own understanding of the war does. The conflict is confusing for even those intimately caught in the middle, and no one seems to be able to explain it fully to Nikola. But as he begins to grasp the ramifications of war — as well as what’s possible for him if he were to immigrate to Canada as a war refugee. But in order to do that, he must truly strike out on his own like the hero in a coming-of-age story — but it comes at a heartbreaking price.
That sacrifice explored in “Variables” is one paid by many real-life refugees, who sought peace and refuge from bloodshed and violence from Bosnia, Herzegovina and many other countries torn apart by war. As a longer short, viewers are given the room not just to know, but to truly feel, what it means to splinter a family apart — for a mother to say goodbye to a child she hopes to send to a better life, and for that child to move forward without the emotional base that’s given them a sense of meaning and home. The ending in the film is hopeful and bittersweet all at once, as the border between childhood and adulthood can sometimes be, even without the complications of war and geopolitics.