Review: “Always Amber”

Finding Yourself – Hair Dye After Air Dye
By Jakob Åsell

A kaleidoscopic collage of various video formats, Always Amber beats in synch with the restless hearts of its teenage protagonist.

The buzzing sound of a haircutter is a recurring theme in the Swedish documentary and Berlinale Panorama Dokumente entry Always Amber (Alltid Amber, Sweden), where the non-binary teenager Amber keeps shapeshifting through bold hairstyles and make-up. But is Amber truly ready to change beyond that? “How much do I have to change because society doesn’t change fast enough?” they wonder, while considering gender reassignment surgery at age 17. “I can’t change others, I can only change myself”.

Told from Burger King booths, bathtubs and messy kitchens, Always Amber is the story of every teenager, and at the same time, it’s really not. “We were two freaks who didn’t fit in anywhere, but together we were a great fit”, says Amber about Sebastian, the only other non-binary student at their high school. We get to follow Amber and Sebastian’s experimental years as part of a new generation of inner-city Stockholm kids, well versed in and open to the notion of fluid gender identities. Filtered through Snapchat, Instagram videos and observational footage, this punky portrait captures three years of transition, parties and teenage angst.

Crystallizing their trial and error process of forming a teenage identity through a restless collage of various video formats, the film’s experimental style has a strong sense of its own identity.  Although the zoomed-in smartphone footage can sometimes feel jarringly grainy on a big screen, the heartfelt message of acceptance always shines through. Through rapid shots of 90’s home video footage and a seductive punk rock score by Stockholm-based musician “ShitKid”, Always Amber finds its own unique rhythm in synch with the anxious beat of its teenage protagonists.

The production company “Story” has served as a megaphone for talented new voices and a creative force in the Swedish documentary scene for the past twenty years, of which Lia Hietala and Hannah Reinikainen, here at their feature film debut, are emblematic cases. One has a documentary background, and the other comes from theatre and fiction, but they both share an eye for intimate moments while leaving part of the authorship in Amber’s social media-savvy hands.

At its best, Always Amber is a tender and unfiltered (save for its own snapchat filters) love letter to that period of youth where love and friendship mean everything. And while there are moments when the film feels somewhat unsure of where it may be heading, in the end, so does Amber herself. During the Q&A that followed the world premiere at the 70th Berlinale, a spectator thanked the filmmakers “for bringing a normalized perspective” on queerness, as opposed to the way the latter oftentimes traverses films as a mere provocation. It should be acknowledged that some might feel that a part of queerness is about *not* being normalized, but this idea wasn’t brought up in the Q&A.  While visits to a transgender care clinic play a part in the film’s scaffolding, being heartbroken, smoking cigarettes, finding new friends, and cutting one’s hair are just as essential vehicles to queer representation, which the filmmakers themselves seem to have longed for in their own teens.

Jakob Åsell
© FIPRESCI 2020