In this day and age, where everyone and their mother has the ambition of being a world renowned filmmaker, the ever growing cinematic landscape is not only becoming more and more democratized but in turn harder and harder to navigate qualitatively. For every great independent feature, you have a handful of turgid Sundance darling knockoffs, for every great bit of unsung world cinema, you have a thousand seemingly taboo pushing but ultimately lifeless failures. However, when a real, engaging new cinematic voice comes to light, it’s the stuff dreams are made of. It’s the stuff of true discovery.
That’s what instantly comes to one’s mind following a screening of the new Norwegian film It’s Only Make Believe (aka Eventyrland). From director Arild Ostin Ommundsen, this moving and unflinching character study may have a premise that would make any knowing cinephile roll his or her eyes at its cliché-ridden log-line, but will hopefully have those same film nerds buzzing after seeing just how gorgeous this real world cinema gem truly is.
The film’s opening frames introduce us to Jenny (played by the gorgeous Silje Salomonsen) who has just discovered that she and her boyfriend Frank are going to be expecting their first child. Down on their luck, the two are seemingly happily locked in the throes of love when one fateful night the two are seemingly double crossed when a drug pickup goes horribly wrong. Frightened by an oncoming attacker, Jenny shoots and kills the angered man, with her newly engaged fiancée getting caught in the fire fight. Revealed to have survived only to be ostensibly brain dead and in hospice care, we learn that Jenny had a beautiful baby girl, but spends her child’s first handful of years in prison. After some moving credits flashing through these years, Jenny is released and from there we watch as she attempts to do right by her child, make amends with those in her life and find the redemption she so richly desires.
However, as one would expect, her past finds a way of truly haunting her, and over the next half hour, this evocative if not entirely ground breaking character study is a lyrical and touching look at a woman fighting tooth and nail to make it out of this rock bottom point in her life with as few scars as possible. With a never ending stream of negativity facing her ranging from revenge-seeking bad guys to faulty plumbing in her new home, this seems like a picture that would be fitting of a “torture porn” title (think of the many grief fests that make the rounds at many smaller indie film festivals) but with a lively soundtrack, great performances, and a camera that is as vital they come, this is a supreme character study told by a filmmaker far more assured than a debut filmmaker has any right to be.
While the performances here are great, it’s the aesthetic that will get people talking. Seemingly influenced by directors ranging from Terrence Malick to Joachim Trier, this film looks, sounds and feels very much like a distant cousin of a film like Trier’s recent Oslo, 31. August. Covering some of the same thematic ground, this picture is very much interested in looking at what the experience of seeking real forgiveness and redemption truly is, and through this Malick-esque thoughtful aesthetic, the film breaks through this relatively standard character study premise. Intimate and verdant, the film is as much in love with the local landscapes as it is with Salomonsen’s face, giving equal time to the lush locales as it does the beautifully physical performance given by the lead. Emotion runs high in this muted melodrama, and there are a handful of truly awe-inspiring shots, particularly those shot from behind our lead as she walks away from the camera. These moments are used as flights of fancy in most pictures, but here they scream a sense of naturalism that bleeds out of the great performances, turning this into a raw and real take on a subject that has become fodder for various indie darlings.
Performance-wise, the film is above reproach. Much of the weight stands on the shoulders of Salomonsen, as ostensibly every scene involves her and her interaction with this seemingly oppressive universe she finds herself locked in, but she proves to be more than capable of commanding this entire picture. Showing a wide range here, from the opening bits of pure romantic hope to the final frames of real emotional catharsis, the picture relies on her ability to provide a real arc, and she more than lives up to that demand. A revelatory performance, she proves to have a commanding screen presence and a naturalism that does this film a whole hell of a lot of good. Opposite her are names like Tomas Alf Larsen and the shockingly good Iben Ostin Hjelle as her daughter Merete, but this is Salomonsen’s show, and she absolutely steals it.
Now, while some of the film’s musical choices may take a viewer out of the film, and again, the premise or thematic discussion here isn’t really all that groundbreaking, a film this aesthetically assured and well acted doesn’t come around often. As moving a melodrama as they come and as visually inspired a character study, this is a film that may be hard to check out, but if the chance arises, it’s an absolute must-see.