Memories of a Swedish Girlhood

09/15/2010 4:00 AM |

The Girl
Directed by Fredrik Edfeldt

As a person who is too old to truly remember what it’s like to be a child and is not regularly surrounded by ten-year-olds, their anxieties and mannerisms, this reviewer spent most of the 98 minutes of The Girl desperately trying to figure out if what was on-screen had any veracity. This is not because there is anything particularly provocative contained within that time—competently executed yet unremarkable fall releases beget wandering thoughts.

The premise is simple: a young, unnamed Swedish girl remains at home for the summer while the rest of her family is away on a humanitarian aid mission in Africa. Since the story is set in 1980, her caretaker aunt’s hard drinking and self-absorption still falls under ”bohemian” rather than ”abusive.” Sadly, this stewardship does not last long—the aunt leaves with an old beau, and the girl is left to lose herself in solitude. Concealing the fact she is completely unsupervised, the girl drifts between an older female cousin’s house and a local farmboy’s acreage. The former propose theory about the world of sex; she fails to turn it into practice with the latter. These opposing social poles naturally repel each other, and the girl eventually separates herself from both.

As the summer loafs on, the girl slowly drifts in and out of her own world of fantasy a la Tideland and Pan’s Labyrinth, except not as interesting. The trauma of her abandonment doesn’t take her far outside of the family home, nor does it afford any CGI creatures to taunt or pal around with her. Rather, fantasy manifests itself in short bursts featuring characters from her own life. In one instance, she puts on blackface and beads, clumsily yearning for her family’s affection. Perhaps this is the most scrupulous depiction of such childhood loneliness as jejune and somber; perhaps it’s just outright unimaginative.

In spite of its potentially absent emotional rapport, The Girl is easily the most visually compelling film of the year. Director of Photography Hoyte van Hoytema (who also lit Let the Right One In) masterfully establishes a country summer palette reminiscent of Néstor Almendros, where it’s always exactly 2:30 on a muted, clear day, or else it’s chiaroscuro cool twilight. Blanca Engström, the child actress, has a remarkable physical presence, and naturally has the pallor of one of those wonderful human props from a Roy Andersson movie. With stringy, faded red hair, she dashes around the lush Swedish countryside, a sterile pale stick shaking at the ubiquitous fertility of nature. If nothing else, see The Girl to remember what a real cinematic visual sensibility can be. Bliss out, don’t read the subtitles. Just let your eyes unfocus a bit enjoy the sensation.

Opens September 17 at Cinema Village