Harrowing dramas about beautiful young people on a downward spiral into drug addiction have been a screen staple for so long now that any new take on the theme risks plunging headlong into stale cliche. But Let Me Fall, by Icelandic writer-director Baldvin Zophoniasson (who goes by the snappy Baldvin Z), puts a gripping and moving spin on familiar material thanks to its fine ensemble cast, stylish sexy-grungy visuals and a time-jumping screenplay that acknowledges both the agony and ecstasy of substance abuse.
Like Zophoniasson’s last film, Life in a Fishbowl (2014), which Iceland submitted as its official Oscar contender, Let Me Fall is already a domestic box-office hit. World premiering earlier this month at the Toronto International Film Festival, the pic has sufficient class and gravitas to dodge the more predictable pitfalls of addiction drama. Framing the plot in female-driven coming-of-age terms, with a tortured same-sex romance at its heart, also gives this story a fresher angle than most drug movies. These elements should boost the film’s chances with festival bookers and potential overseas buyers.
Responding to Iceland’s unprecedented recent spike in opioid-linked deaths, Zophoniasson and his co-writer Birgir Orn Steinarsson based Let Me Fall‘s timely screenplay on real people, drawing on interviews with addicts and their families. But they also studied classics of the genre for inspiration, notably Uli Edel’s Berlin-set heroin drama Christiane F (1981). The film’s non-linear narrative zigzags between two distinct time periods, discrete yet intertwined, which capture the protagonists first as thrill-hungry teenagers and later as damaged thirtysomethng adults.
In the earlier section, promising high school student Magnea (Elín Sif Halldorsdottir) falls in with a wild party crowd that includes vampish beauty Stella (Eyrun Bjork Jakobsdottir) and her sleazy pusher boyfriend. Lured away from academic studies into a twilight life of petty crime and hard drugs, Magnea is initially seduced by the dark glamour of heroin, then by the even darker allure of Stella. In the thick of their druggy haze, the pair become lovers and even catch a glimpse of an idyllic future together on some faraway beach. Of course, this fantasy is soon dashed by arrest, jail and the subculture of abusive predators who feed on vulnerable junkies.
In the later scenes, the adult Stella (Lara Johanna Jonsdottir) is now a clean-living ex-junkie with a settled family life and a successful job as a kind of rehab poster girl. In stark contrast, Magnea (Kristín Thora Haraldsdottir) has become a desperate slave to full-blown addiction with all its attendant health problems, grinding poverty and sordid transactional sex. When the estranged ex-lovers briefly cross paths in adulthood, Stella is suddenly overcome with crushing guilt about her role in Magnea’s downfall, which the screenplay unfolds in flashbacks that illuminate each minor betrayal and wrong turn on her slow crawl into hell. No spoilers here, but this is not a story about redemptive happy endings.
Let Me Fall covers familiar dramatic terrain over its generous two-hours-plus running time, but it does so with mounting conviction and compellingly fleshed-out characters, probing extreme behavior while largely avoiding the obvious traps of prurient sensationalism or preachy earnestness. The based-on-reality screenplay has an agreeably nuanced, journalistic texture, particularly in the heartbreaking scenes between Magnea and her endlessly patient but emotionally devastated father Hannes (a terrific, soul-weary Thorsteinn Bachmann).
Working once again with Life in a Fishbowl cinematographer Johann Mani Johannsson, Zophoniasson gives this story a similarly dreamy look, invoking the blissed-out dislocation of the characters with long fluid shots, intermittently fuzzy focus and frequent bursts of sunny lens flare. The lysergically languid score was composed by another of the director’s regular collaborators, Olafur Arnalds (The Hunger Games, Broadchurch).
Let Me Fall is not some game-changing new depiction of addiction, but it is an engrossing contemporary take, told with class and gravitas. The love scenes between the two young leads are notably well-handled, conveying some of the same voluptuous intimacy as Abdellatif Kechiche’s Cannes Palme d’Or-winner Blue Is the Warmest Color but without that film’s lingering, disquieting voyeurism.
Production companies: The Icelandic Film Company, Solar Films, Neutrinos Productions
Cast: Elín Sif Halldorsdottir, Eyrun Bjork Jakobsdottir, Lara Johanna Jonsdottir, Kristín Thora Haraldsdottir, Thorsteinn Bachmann
Director: Baldvin Z
Screenwriters: Baldvin Z, Birgir Orn Steinarsson
Cinematographer: Johann Mani Johannsson
Editor: Ulfur Teitur Traustason
Producers: Julius Kemp, Ingvar Thordarson
Music: Olafur Arnalds
Venue: Toronto International Film Festival (Contemporary World Cinema)
Sales: Raven Banner