Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Review: "Simon and the Oaks"

"Simon and the Oaks" is one of those films that never stops surprising us. We think it's going to be about one thing, and for awhile it actually is, until it isn't. It's a human story that with an organic, messy feel to it, understanding that life rarely unspools in a tidy three-act narrative.

This Swedish drama from director Lisa Ohlin, based on the best-selling novel by Marianne Fredriksson, begins in 1939 as the war is breaking out across Europe. The populace is nervous and fearful -- especially after they hear about Jews being rounded up in neighboring Norway.

For a time the story focuses on the fast friendship of two young boys, Simon (Jonatan S. Wachter) and Isak (Karl Linnertorp). Simon is the son of simple blue-collar parents who live in a shack by the coastline, while Isak is the child of wealthy Jewish parents.

Simon's father, Erik (Stefan Gödicke) is perpetually befuddled by the shy, bookish boy who prefers spending time by himself to getting into fights with other boys -- which is Erik's idea of normalcy. He's upset by how much time Simon spends sitting in his favorite oak tree (actually, several oaks grown together), listening to the music in the wind through its branches. Simon's mother Karin (Helen Sjöholm) is quiet but strong, and urges Erik to agree to send him to the "fancy" school in town.

That's where Isak and Simon meet, instantly bonding. Simon visits Isak's apartment, and returns home with wondrous tales of elevators and amazing chandeliers. Despite his lavish appointments, Erik's life is far from perfect. His mother refuses to emerge from her own bedroom, constantly worrying about the Nazis. His father Ruben (Jan Josef Liefers) is supportive but a bit distant.

Time passes, and following a tragedy things move in unexpected directions. Isak moves in with Simon and his parents, and it seems the two families are nearly blended. Erik's pride is wounded by Ruben's wealth and his constant gifts and offers of financial assistance. At first Simon is thrilled to have his best friend so near, but then he grows resentful as Erik takes up woodworking and shipbuilding with Erik. Simon in turn is drawn to Ruben's penchant for music and art, and for a time it appears the fathers have swapped sons.

The story segues until after the war, with Bill Skarsgard and Karl Linnertorp taking over the roles of the teenage Simon and Isak, respectively. With his tall, stooped frame, milky skin and big liquid eyes, Skarsgard makes for an engaging figure. Simon goes off to university and comes home with new ideas and new disdain for his parents -- especially after they reveal a big secret that throws all the relationships of the two families into utter chaos.

The very definition of "family" becomes loose and too unwieldy to describe the situation in which these people find themselves.

Ohlin, who co-wrote the screenplay with Linda Aronson, focuses less on narrative continuity and more on particular moments in the characters' lives. Different people come to the fore of the story, and then fall back. Isak, after being so critical as a boy, recedes in to the background as they near adulthood. Erik seems to dominate young Simon's home life, but over time it becomes clear that his mother Karin is the real axis upon which his world turns.

Sjöholm's performance is a revelation, communicating oceans of emotional depth through very few words.

This beautiful, sad, elegiac tale perfectly captures the aching heart of Swedish life, a bittersweet mix of summer's rapturous joy and winter's deep song of regret.

3.5 stars out of four

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