Child's Play

in 17th Black Nights Film Festival

by Amber Wilkinson

Scandinavian filmmakers have never been scared of telling the stories of children to adults. From Lasse Hallstrom’s 1985 film My Life as a Dog (Mitt liv som hund) through to more recent films such as Niels Arden Oplev’s We Shall Overcome (Drømmen) (2006) and Jens Jonsson’s The King of Ping Pong (Ping-pongkingen) (2008), the state of society more generally is reflected – and frequently magnified — by the child’s experience.

This preoccupation with the young is on the minds of many filmmakers in the neighbouring Baltic countries too, as the line-up at Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival showed, with kids and dysfunctional families high on the agenda.

The most successful exploration of anxiety in childhood was presented in Latvian film Mother, I Love You (Mammu, es Tevi milu), written and directed by Janis Nords. Raimonds (Kristofers Konovalovs) often has a smile on his face – particularly when he is seen racing his kick scooter through the streets of Riga – but his eyes tell a different story of wariness and insecurity. He loves his overworked single mum (Vita Varpina) and hates her, too, especially when her short-fuse frustrations end with a slap.

The adults here are locked in their own worlds — failing to realise that the bad example being set by their secrets and lies is likely to lead to rough justice when their children emulate it. Nords explores the tensions in the household with admirable understatement and an unfussy and naturalistic style which recalls the Dardennes brothers. We don’t need to see his mum repeatedly raise a hand to Raimonds to know his fears, and the director — who also wrote the screenplay — finds sharp contrast between the freedoms offered to the youngster when he is outside, alone and the anxieties that crowd in on him within the walls of his home. We are with Raimonds from start to finish, willing him to find the reciprocal touch of comfort.

Young Pete (Olavi Angervo) faces similar problems in Above Dark Waters (Tumman veden päällä), although his environment holds the promise of more constant physical peril. His mum (Matleena Kuusniemi) and dad (Samuli Edelmann) seem the perfect happy couple until drink fuels his father’s volatility. Actor Peter Franzén, adapting from this own novel, brings a throbbing sense of close and present danger to his directorial debut.

Details hint at the pattern of domestic violence. We see a gun nestling, innocuously, behind the family’s supply of loo roll and watch helplessly as an arm round Pete’s neck slips disturbingly quickly down the emotional register from comfort to threat. Afterwards, in the remorseful make-ups, we watch as Pete adds to his collection of Wile E. Coyote models, each in the same pose, as fixed and unable to change as his father. Offering masculine contrast is Pete’s adventurous grandfather (Ismo Kallio), a man to whom a comforting smile and outlandish tale come easily and who comes to represent an oasis of calm in Pete’s life. Franzén gets wonderful performances from both Angervo and Milja Tuunainen, who plays his sister Suvi, but is less successful in his attempts to incorporate magic realism into the action. Pete’s imaginary friend, represented by a bright light, is used inconsistently and there’s a suspicion that it probably works better on the page. The film also has some pacing issues that could have been solved by a sprightlier runtime. It nevertheless has an emotional resonance that suggests Franzén may well go on to have a successful career behind the camera, as well as in front of it.

Finally then, to Maximilian Hult’s carefully crafted comedy drama Home (Hemma). Although young Tom (Erik Lundqvist) is not the central character in this Swedish/Icelandic co-production, he is as vitally important and vitally written as its main protagonists. He, like Raimonds, comes from a single parent home — a fact that is alluded to rather than laboured — so when his path crosses that of the recently widowed Frida (Anita Wall, in a beautifully nuanced performance), the two of them find an instant connection through the need for companionship.

Hult’s film rests gently on the idea that happiness comes not necessarily through change, or becoming a better person, but through acceptance of the person you already are and a willingness to believe others accept you too. This theme may be most obvious in the main narrative concerning lonely young woman Lou (Moa Gammel), who only finds out about her grandmother Frida because of her grandfather’s death. But it flows through Tom’s story as well, as he repeatedly tries, with the support of his new-found friend, to find the one thing he must surely be good at, even as we come to learn he excels at simply being himself. Hult’s script has a robust humour which means that even when he is dealing with delicate emotions such as grief and isolation, it never slips into mawkishness. This home is not just where the heart is, but a place of comforting acceptance.

Thematic trends in film, of course, happen all the time, especially at well-curated festivals, but the exploration of children by the films in Tallinn was heartening in its variety, freshness and avoidance of cliché.