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The teachings of Jesus get seriously busy on the dance floor in Disco, a strange, surprising and increasingly unnerving second feature from writer-director Jorunn Myklebust Syversen (The Tree Feller) that premiered in Toronto’s Discovery section.
Set between the creepy confines of Norway’s Christian evangelist community and a series of extravagant dance competitions where ABBA, Skrillex and Starlight Express come improbably crashing together, the story follows 19-year-old disco champ Mirjam — impressively played by Josefine Frida, who starred in the hit TV series Skam — as she struggles with questions of faith and family while doing plenty of acrobatic depth-defying twerking.
If that sounds like a wild time at the movies, Disco is much more of an unsettling existential drama, and one that grows increasingly dire as Mirjam’s life unravels. The canvas may be strewn with glitter and glory, but beneath the surface Syversen provides a chilling look at how religion can be used to ignore deeper personal traumas, convincing youngsters to turn to god when they should perhaps be turning to therapy or something more probing. Festivals and ambitious distributors could take notice of a film that tackles serious issues without resolving them in simple ways.
When we first meet Mirjam, she’s the reigning champion of a dance genre whose young participants — all of them female and predominantly blond — slather their faces with makeup and sparkles, and deck themselves out in rhinestone-covered Daisy Dukes, as they bust a move to fast-paced EDM. Captured documentary-style by DP Marius Matzow Gulbrandsen, the dance scenes show Mirjam reaching an almost trance-like physical ecstasy as she boogies to the beat and loses herself in the music.
Back at home, Mirjam experiences a more spiritual brand of ecstasy with her evangelist mom, Vanja (Kjaersti Oden Skjeldal), and preacher stepdad, Per (Nicolai Cleve Broch), who run the local branch of a Norwegian megachurch called Friheten (The Freedom). Based in a stylish modern building whose lobby includes a hip coffee bar, Friheten’s services consist of sing-along Christian pop anthems and Per’s exuberant sermons, which he delivers like Tom Cruise’s Frank T.J. Mackey in Magnolia, seducing and destroying his young worshippers into accepting Christ.
Mirjam is a true believer at first, leading Friheten’s pop ensemble and recruiting new worshippers. But we soon learn she harbors demons that cannot be easily exorcised, including the fact that her real father — who spent some time in jail — may have sexually abused her. Despite Mirjam’s efforts to deal with the past, neither Vanja nor Per want to go there, leaving their daughter to fend for herself. The crisis causes Mirjam to gradually lose her disco mojo and take more desperate measures at home.
Oscillating between the ecstatic dance and church scenes on one hand, and Mirjam’s stifled personal life on the other, Syversen reveals how her young heroine’s supposedly full existence conceals a vacuum of suffering within. Sadly, Mirjam sees nowhere to turn but even deeper into religion, listening to the sermons of American rock star preacher Steven Furtick for guidance, and eventually seeking the help of Brigitta (Andrea Braein Hovig), who runs a conservative Christian youth camp.
The film’s stark and troubling third section, which will be familiar for anyone who has seen the 2006 documentary Jesus Camp, shows Mirjam going to alarming extremes — literally, a freakish alarm goes off at one point in the camp — to cleanse herself. These ultimate sequences, which Syversen and her DP frame in cold, saturated fixed shots that take on the guise of stained glass, offer no real sense of closure and leave Mirjam’s narrative both open-ended and even more disquieting, forcing us to ponder whether faith has ultimately saved her or caused her to further lose her way.
But what’s perhaps most distressing about Disco is not the extremist Christian boot camp of the finale, but the market-oriented hipster proselytizing of megachurches like Friheten. With its exposed concrete coffee bar, which could have been airlifted out of Tribeca, on-site DJ spinning soft techno and slickly-shot recruitment videos playing on LED screens, Friheten reels you in with the idea that Christ is not only cool but contemporary. You can see why people like Mirjam — vulnerable yet also energetic and looking for answers — could be persuaded to drink the Kool-Aid, and Syversen’s movie chillingly reveals how a spoonful of sugar helps it go down so easily.
Production company: Mer Film
Cast: Josefine Frida, Nicolai Cleve Broch, Kjaersti Oden Skjeldal, Andrea Braein Hovig, Espen Klouman Hoiner
Director-screenwriter: Jorunn Myklebust Syversen
Producer: Maria Ekerhovd
Director of photography: Marius Matzow Gulbrandsen
Production designer: Ellen Oseng
Editors: Frida Eggum Michaelsen, Mina Nybakke
Composers: Thom Hell, Jan Erik Mikalsen, Marius Kristiansen
Venue: Toronto International Film Festival (Discovery)
Sales: New Europe Film Sales
In Norwegian, English
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