A kid who likes books? This has to be set in the 20th century.


Theatrical Release Date: 10/12/2012 (USA), 12/9/2011 (Sweden)
Director: Lisa Ohlin
Cast: Bill Skarsgård, Helen Sjöholm , Jan Josef Liefers, Stefan Gödicke, Karl Linnertorp, Jonatan S. Wächter, Karl Martin Eriksson, Cecilia Nilsson, Erica Löfgren, Katharina Schüttler
Rated: Not Rated.
Runtime: 1 hour, 57 minutes (USA)


Trailer:

I thought subtitles were more … subtle.

Based on a best-selling book by Marianne Fredriksson and nominated for 13 Guldbagge awards (Sweden’s Oscars), “Simon & the Oaks” arrives in the United States with the pedigree to be a great film. It also stars Bill Skarsgård, another of Stellan’s boys who have gone into acting. With domestic films, having expectations doesn’t always hold up. The thing with foreign films is that you are far more likely to come away with an appreciation for the work.

This isn’t where I get on a high horse and expound the decline of American cinema. It’s simply a matter of practicality. Homegrown films can find at least some limited release as long as you can raise the funds and/or get yourself into the festival circuit and hope a distributor picks up your movie; and most of those works are in English. Sadly, a significant portion of U.S. audiences aren’t willing to read subtitles and this limitation cuts the available market so drastically that exhibitors and studios need more assurance their investment is going to net a financial return. As a result, they tend to only pick up movies that were already fairly successful in their home country, both financially and critically.

Sorry about that, I wasn’t expecting the horse to be that tall. In any case, those are some of the factors that go into why audiences with a proclivity for foreign films often find a greater percentage of them resonate emotionally, and overall, feel like “better” films. It’s sort of like growing up in Europe but only knowing about the 5 or 10 best American movies every year. If you didn’t know that “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter” existed, you wouldn’t have such a bad example of the schlock foisted on domestic audiences far too often.

Getting back on topic, “Simon & the Oaks” is a very good film and it met the expectations one would have of its pedigree. Simon (played as an adult by Skarsgård) is a dreamer who never feels quite like he belongs with his parents and is fascinated by the world in which his friend Isak lives. It’s 1939 and Hitler is on the rampage, with their homeland of Sweden under threat. Isak being a Jew presents the obvious complications and their two families become intertwined over the course of the war and beyond.

Trying to encapsulate the story is simply a book report so I’ll spare all of you that. The important thing is that this is a story of Simon’s maturation and discovery of who he really is; a journey for a boy fascinated by things once out of his reach to learn the importance of everything that had always been close at hand. It’s clear the book probably develops certain ancillary characters more fully and there’s a rather glaring problem of pacing in the last 30 minutes, so don’t think after all that blustering about the quality of foreign films I’m saying this is perfection caught on celluloid.

However, the performances all around are excellent, with subtleties and shading for each main character throughout. Although WWII is the backdrop for the first half of the movie, this isn’t your typical Holocaust movie. Of course, the horrors inflicted by the Germans during that time period are evident, but the story is more about how these people coped mentally and emotionally while under the threat of Nazi occupation, and not stocked with scenes where people are hiding under floorboards every five minutes.

All of the technical elements wrangled together by director Lisa Ohlin are top notch. From cinematography to production design to costuming to score, all of the film’s crew matched the quality of the cast and it’s no surprise that this garnered so many award nominations on their home turf of Sweden (winning 2 for its supporting actors). If it hadn’t been for the dip in energy level and almost meandering script towards the end of the movie, this would surely have garnered a bit more praise from myself.

The final scenes do come together nicely but it was almost a case of too little, too late for “Simon & the Oaks”. It needed another pass at the script to tighten it up, as the task of telling such a large story is anything but easy and the fast-forwarding of the movie to hit certain events in Simon’s life feel rushed in comparison to the time taken with his adolescence. Still, I very much enjoyed this look at the experiences certain Swedes had during WWII and anytime a film can broaden the scope of my understanding, it’s a good thing.

3.5 out of 5