Monday, February 24, 2014

New Nordic Cinema: It’s Only Make Believe

In Norway, the criminal justice system is naturally all about rehabilitation. Unfortunately, underworld types are not so likely to forgive and forget. Indeed, they are rather inclined hold a grudge as one single mother trying to go straight learns in director-screenwriter-cinematographer-editor-production designer-whatever-else-needed-to-be-done Arild Østen Ommundsen’s It’s Only Make Believe (trailer here), which screens this week as part of the New Nordic Cinema series at Scandinavia House.

When Jenny tells her scruffy boyfriend Frank she is pregnant, he responds with a not completely freaked out proposal, complete with a nicked engagement ring. It is a nice moment, but it will not last. The two mildly delinquent lovers continue on their mission to retrieve a bag of drugs from a greenhouse for a dodgy pal. Unfortunately, it turns out to be a much heavier situation than he led them to believe. Guns will be discharged, leading to at least one corpse and a very pregnant Jenny serving a ten year prison sentence.

Despite her incarceration, Jenny still comes to know her daughter Merete, a ridiculously angelic little girl, who never seems to resent her mother’s criminal history. However, when the model prisoner is finally released, Merete’s foster mother will not just automatically hand her over. She will have to demonstrate stability and a healthy living environment, which her plumbing-challenged family home is definitely not. The drug-dealing thugs demanding Jenny pay off her “debt” from the misadventure in the greenhouse will not help either.

There are moments of jarring violence in Make Believe, as well as pastoral time-lapse interludes, accompanied by ever so sappy soft alt rock tunes.  Obviously, the violence is more palatable. While it has its goey moments, the film is not likely to be confused with a fairy tale, as the English title vaguely implies. Ommundsen never turns away from man’s predatory nature, suggesting it is nearly impossible for a straying waif like Jenny to break out of her vicious cycle. The thug who adopts the name “Eddie Vedder” is also a nice touch.

Silje Salomonsen is acutely compelling as Jenny, even when her character makes forehead-slappingly bad decisions. She certainly expresses her motherly instincts, which is absolutely essential. Make Believe also benefits from a number of understated but keenly sensitive supporting turns, especially including Tomas Alf Larsen as Gary, her formerly chubby high school chum, who still carries a torch for her. The look and demeanor of Egil Birkeland’s “Vedder” is quite something, as well.

So yes, it is a bummer to be an ex-con, even in Norway. Make Believe covers some familiar territory, but Ommundsen and Salomonsen still steadily pull us into this very human drama. Recommended for those with a taste for tragic naturalism, It’s Only Make Believe screens in New York at Scandinavia House this Wednesday (2/26) and Friday (2/28) and also during this year’s upcoming Cinequest (on 3/6, 3/9, and 3/13) in San Jose.