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The craggy coast of volcanic Iceland is no place to navigate early adolescence in Heartstone, an absorbing if far too unhurried drama from first-time writer-director Gudmundur Arnar Gudmundsson. Sensitive performances from the young cast ensure that the story ultimately acquires poignancy, and the arresting physical setting helps disguise the familiarity of some of its coming-of-age signposts. But at two hours plus, the film spends too much time idling; it could use a more ruthless edit to illuminate the confused feelings of its dueling leads.
Thor (Baldur Einarsson) and Kristjan (Blaer Hinriksson) are best friends who live in a remote fishing village, surrounded by farmland and rugged mountains. With little to occupy them during the long summer months, their boredom shifts easily into cruelty and destruction, as they catch and kill fish or smash up car wrecks for fun. But there’s also tenderness beneath their aggression, particularly in Kristjan’s protectiveness toward the more diminutive, less mature Thor, who is still very much a child even if he’s impatient to put that stage behind him.
Neither boy has a peaceful home life. Thor’s older sisters — the antagonistic Rakel (Jonina Thordis Karlsdottir) and the more artsy Hafdis (Ran Ragnarsdottir), who paints, writes poetry and listens to Bjork — tease him mercilessly. Abandoned by their father for a younger woman, their mother (Nina Dogg Filippusdottir) has to endure her children’s judgmental disapproval when she attempts to rebuild a life for herself by going on dates. Kristjan’s situation is worse, however, with an abusive drunk of a father (Sveinn Olafur Gunnarsson) whose homophobic intolerance is signaled early on.
When Thor starts putting hesitant romantic moves on the more experienced Beta (Dilja Valsdotttir), Kristjan falls in line by making his own desultory stabs at courtship with Beta’s friend Hanna (Katla Njalsdottir). But in games of Truth or Dare, during sleepovers and on an impromptu camping trip, the real object of Kristjan’s affections becomes clear. That creates conflict with Thor, already struggling with feelings of inadequacy about his inchoate manhood.
Gudmundsson’s character definition could be stronger, but he conveys a sharp sense of the ways in which the harshness of the landscape is echoed in the behavior of its flinty inhabitants, even toward the people they love. There are insightful observations of the irrationality and selfishness of early adolescence and the consuming nature of desire at that age.
In one of the more memorable scenes, Kristjan’s unpredictable father takes the two boys to gather gull eggs on a cliff face, and a near-tragedy makes it impossible for Thor to stay in denial about his friend’s feelings. The story gains much-needed weight thereafter, and the concluding scene between the protagonists is moving while remaining admirably understated. But there’s a nagging lack of economy to the storytelling throughout, as well as a mild sense of imbalance — while Kristjan negotiates by far the trickier and more painful emotional journey of the two, the writer-director’s focus favors Thor by a wide margin.
Still, despite its flaws, this is a well-acted, visually atmospheric debut that shows promise, casting a soulful gaze on awkward-age upheavals, gay and straight.
Venue: Venice Film Festival (Venice Days); also in Toronto festival
Production companies: SF Studios Production, Join Motion Pictures
Cast: Baldur Einarsson, Blaer Hinriksson, Dilja Valsdottir, Katla Njalsdottir, Soren Malling, Nina Dogg Filippusdottir, Nanna Kristin Magnusdottir, Jonina Thordis Karlsdottir, Ran Ragnarsdottir, Sveinn Olafur Gunnarsson
Director-screenwriter: Gudmundur Arnar Gudmundsson
Producers: Anton Mani Svansson, Lise Orheim Stender, Jesper Morthorst, Gudmundur Arnar Gudmundsson
Executive producers: Lars Bjorn Hansen, Lars Bredo Rahbek
Director of photography: Sturla Brandth Grovlen
Production designer: Hulda Helgadottir
Costume designer: Helga Helgadottir
Music: Kristian Selin Eidnes Andersen
Editors: Anne Osterud, Janus Billeskov Jansen
Casting: Kristin Lea Sigridardottir, Maria Sigurdardottir
Sales: Films Boutique
Not rated, 129 minutes
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