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Scandinavian films are doing well in the Oscar race this year, with three of the nine slots on the foreign-film shortlist. One that did not make it into the competition is a fine movie from Finland, Little Wing, which confirms the creative vitality of filmmakers from that part of the world. This marks the feature directorial debut of Selma Vilhunen (who was Oscar-nominated for a short film she made a couple of years ago), and she demonstrates impressive command of her craft. Apart from the major hurdles faced by most foreign films in the American market, this coming-of-age story is a winner.
Although it’s far from a feminist tract, Little Wing does demonstrate the kinds of stories that we may be missing by having so few women directors. The pic centers on Varpu (Linnea Skog), a 12-year-old girl who lives with her single mother, Siru (Paula Vesala), in Helsinki. Siru works as a maid and has very little time for her daughter, so Varpu becomes obsessed with the idea of tracking down her father, who left the family long ago.
The sharp early scenes delineate the problems in the mother-daughter relationship. Varpu is the far more mature of the two, and she’s the one forced to give sensible advice to the hapless Siru, even about her mother’s desperate dating life. A running joke concerns Siru’s inability to pass her driving test, whereas Varpu already knows how to drive, and she decides to borrow a friend’s car to make the trip to Oulu to find her father.
It would be unfair to reveal more of the plot, because writer-director Vilhunen has a number of surprises in store as Varpu searches for her father and makes some unexpected discoveries. All of the characters are very well drawn. When Varpu meets a high-powered executive who may or may not be her real father, the girl forges a bond with the man’s wife, who is harboring some dissatisfactions and undergoes a transformation as a result of her encounter with Varpu. You can certainly see a woman director’s touch in the film’s treatment of all the complex female characters.
Vilhunen captures the different locations with expertise, but her real triumph is her work with the actors. Young Skog refuses to beg for sympathy, even when she’s ignored or mistreated by the classmates and parental figures whom she encounters. The young actress is always levelheaded, and her sane performance demonstrates the resilience of children without ever slipping into sentimentality. Vesala makes the mother maddening at times but always comprehensible, and her gradual growth is handled thoughtfully and convincingly. All the supporting players, including the actor who plays a schizophrenic artist who appears late in the film, register vividly. It could be that the various plot strands are tied up a bit too neatly at the end, but we come to care so much for Varpu and Siru that we don’t begrudge them a hopeful ending.
Venue: Palm Spring International Film Festival (New Voices/New Visions)
Production companies: A Making Movies, Final Cut for Real production with the support of the Finnish Film Foundation, YLE, Nordisk Film and TV Fund, DR, North Finland Film Commission, Media Programme of the European Union
Cast: Paula Vesala, Linnea Skog, Lauri Maijala, Santtu Karvonen, Antti Luusuaniemi, Nina Sillanpaa
Director-screenwriter: Selma Vilhunen
Producers: Kai Nordberg, Kaarle Aho
Director of photography: Tuomo Hutri
Production designer: Sattva-Hanna Toivianen
Costume designer: Tiina Kaukanen
Editor: Samu Heikkila
Music: Paula Vesala, Jori Sjoroos
International sales: Media Luna
Not rated, 100 minutes
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