Friday, November 09, 2012

SLIFF ’12: The Good Son

Leila Manner is about as Hollywood as you can get in Finland.  Her oldest son Ilmari is her greatest enabler.  It is a small but ragingly dysfunctional family unit that Manner’s would be suitor should steer well clear of in Zaida Bergroth’s The Good Son (trailer here), which screens during the 2012 St. Louis International Film Festival.

Manner just burned another batch of bridges at her latest movie premiere.  Hounded by the press, she whisks off Il Manner and his younger brother Unto for a secluded rest in their vacation home.  Of course, as soon as she arrives, she gets bored and proceeds to invite some deadbeat showbiz friends over for a party.  She immediately clashes with a fellow actress, but there is a bit of chemistry between her and well known author Aimo Marttila, a friend of a friend.  Ilmari Bates does not like the looks of him at all, but for a while he seems to be preoccupied with his ex-girlfriend, the small town floozy Karita.  Yet, his psychological issues only need a slight push to reappear in spades.

In the hands of another director, Good Son could have easily traveled into genre territory.  Instead, Bergroth is more concerned with the family relationship dynamics.  In a way, it could be considered the dark flip side of parental reversal films, like The Descendants, in which precocious children abet the dubious parenting of an immature father or mother.  Ilmari is a rather twisted kid, but what can a self-absorbed, boozy diva like Manner expect?  Why Marttila would want anything to do with her is hard to fathom.

While not dogme per se, Good Son definitely has a modest indie look.  At least, it is sunny by the lake.  In contrast, the psyches on display are rather dark.  A fitting companion to Paprika Steen’s crash-and-burn star turn in Applause, Bergroth stages an uncomfortably intimate chamber drama.  Although not reaching Steen’s level of soul-shredding, Elina Knihtilä is still rather frighteningly convincing portraying Manner’s vain and self-destructive behavior. 

Despite all the warning signs his character ignores, Eero Aho brings an appropriately mature, world-weary presence to Marttila.  However, as the title character, Samuli Niittymäki might be going for slow burning intensity, but largely gives the audience empty stares.

To her credit, Bergroth resists overplaying the oedipal card, suggesting many dimensions to the mother-son codependency.  Not exactly winding up where you might expect, Good Son is surprisingly honest and grounded, considering its potential for sensationalism.  It consistently commands viewer attention even with its weak lead.  Moderately recommended for those drawn to psychological dramas, The Good Son screens this Saturday (11/10) and Tuesday (11/13) as part of this year’s SFIFF.  More highly recommended, Christian Petzold’s Barbara, Michael Roskam’s Bullhead, Pen-Ek Ratanaruang’s Headshot, Valeriy Todorovsky’s Hipsters, H.P. Mendoza’s I Am a Ghost, Tom Shuyu Lin’s Starry Starry Night, and Eric Khoo’s Tatsumi will also screen during the festival.