Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Simon and the Oaks: Coming-of-Age in a “Neutral” Country

During WWII, Sweden gave neutrality a bad name.  For two sets of parents, this will be a considerable cause for concern.  Isak Lentov is Jewish.  His schoolmate’s heritage is rather more complicated.  Nonetheless, the young boy will struggle to find his place in the world during a difficult period of history in Lisa Ohlin’s Simon and the Oaks (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

In a way, Oaks is a twist on the Prince and the Pauper, but set against a more tragic backdrop.  Simon Larsson hardly seems to be his father Erik’s son.  He refuses to show a healthy interest in fighting or manly trades, preferring the company of books and the oak tree he invests with mystical significance.  While his socialist father has no use for schooling, he eventually relents, allowing his son to enroll.  There he makes fast friends with Lentov and through him meets his father, Ruben, a rare book dealer, who immigrated from Germany while they could still take considerable property with them.

The Lentovs are still rich, but decidedly nervous.  Technically, Sweden is still neutral, but pro-Germany sentiment runs high.  After Isak is brutalized by a National Socialist street game, his father sends him to live with the Larssons in their coastal cottage.  During his weekend visits, he develops a deep friendship with Simon, encouraging his interest in music and culture.  Conversely, Erik Larsson is able to bring Isak out of his shell through all the rugged activities Simon always shunned.  Meanwhile, the Larssons are a bit uneasy about Simon’s crazy aunt and the mysterious letter she was supposed to destroy but naturally never did.

Charting Larsson’s maturation into manhood, Oak addresses plenty of familiar themes, but never hits any excessively hard.  It also offers a slightly different take on WWII and the Holocaust, from the perspective of the neutral but “Finlandized” Sweden.  Ohlin’s use of music, mostly classical but with a spot of jazz to boot, is also quite distinctive.  Indeed, it is quite a handsome period production, sensitively lensed by Dan Laustsen, Ole Bornedal’s regular cinematographer on films like Just Another Love Story, as well as his freshly minted hit, Possession

Oak won a raft of awards in Sweden, but the real standout performance is that of Jan Josef Liefers as flawed but profoundly decent Ruben Lentov.  His scenes with young Larsson really tap into something deeply humane.  However, Bill Skarsgård (son of actor Stellan) is a bit stiff as the grown Simon, even by the standards of Scandinavian reserve.  There will be none of that though from Katharina Schüttler, who impacts the film like a bombshell in her brief but pivotal appearances as Iza, a surviving Lentov cousin who captivates and repulses the titular Larsson.

Although Oak is relatively conventional in its approach to the era, Ohlin takes a few chances were her material.  The scenes with Iza are provocative, but work in context.  Old Erik Larrson even takes some pointed criticism for being a hypocritical socialist, always looking to capitalize on a perceived advantage.  While never terribly surprising, it always looks and sounds quite stylish and consistently avoids cheap sentiment like the plague.  Recommended on balance (but not essential), Simon and the Oaks opens this Friday (10/12) in New York at the Paris Theatre.