'As I Fall' ('Nar jeg faller'): Film Review

A sober depiction of addiction and family friction.

Norwegian debutant director Magnus Meyer Arnesen draws on his own life story for this prizewinning drama about drugs and fatherhood.

A troubled young man is forced to choose between addiction and parental duty in Magnus Meyer Arnesen's As I Fall. Drawing on the director's own life, this polished debut feature paints a commendably unsensational picture of drug abuse and its emotional complications. Produced by the Norwegian Film School, where Arnesen is studying for his master's degree, this painstaking psychological drama made its international debut at Black Nights Film Festival in Tallinn last month, where it won the Special Jury Prize. Its mix of serious-minded social realism and high production values should ensure further festival interest, though the subject matter may prove overly familiar and the treatment a little too low-key to make much headway internationally.

Preben Hodneland gives a quietly intense, mostly internalized performance as Joachim, a 28-year-old struggling to conquer a long-term heroin habit in contemporary Norway. Living a solitary existence in a remote riverside cabin on the rural fringes of Oslo, Joachim works as a junior chef by day. At night, when his cravings get too strong, he journeys into the city to score drugs. His widowed father Sverre (Vidar Sandem) and married brother Thomas (Morten Svartveit) are generally patient and supportive, but tension crackles just below the surface, especially when the wayward son asks for financial handouts to feed his ill-concealed addiction.

Joachim is shaken out of this gloomy Groundhog Day routine when his ex-girlfriend, single mom Maria (Alexandra Gjerpen), is busted for storing illegal drugs in her apartment. In desperation, she calls Joachim to ask for belated help with the son he abandoned at birth, Lukas (Marius Aandal Pedersen), now eight years old and in need of a daily chaperone to and from school. Man and boy forge an initially tentative, prickly bond. But when it emerges that Maria could face a long prison term, Joachim begins to warm to his newfound fatherhood duties. "Maybe this is just what I need," he tells his wary, disapproving family.

Most junkie dramas sensationalize addiction, maximizing its outlaw glamor and squalid desperation. As I Fall is unusual in making heroin an almost mundane plot device, the key stumbling block to Joachim's acceptance of adult responsibility. Arnesen calmly examines how drug abuse is treated in a  wealthy, liberal, high-welfare society like Norway. Joachim's struggles are mostly personal and emotional, insulated from the harsh social and judicial penalties he might have faced in other countries. Arnesen also maintains an admirably sober and clear-headed focus throughout, avoiding the cheap hit of melodrama that beckons so temptingly from the shadows.

As I Fall is hardly a fun story, but it does offer absorbing psychodrama, handsome visuals and fine performances. Hollow-cheeked and haunted, Hodneland is a magnetic minimalist, his imploring eyes and soul-weary expressions speaking volumes with little need for dialogue. During Joachim's most crushing lows, he almost resembles a flesh-and-blood version of Munch's The Scream. Pedersen also deserves praise for his excellent big-screen debut as Lukas, who gets some amusingly droll lines but thankfully never strays too far into the sentimentalized stereotype of redemptive, preternaturally wise kiddy sidekick.

Arnesen and cinematographer Ivar Taim give the film an attractively clean, crisp, Nordic look, with striking use of precision overhead shots and a tastefully muted watercolor palette of aquamarine, khaki and cream. David Stephen Grant's heart-tugging string and piano score feels a little too emotionally didactic in places, but it boosts the overall sense of a classy technical package. 

Venue: Black Nights Film Festival, Tallinn
Production company: Den Norske Filmskolen
Cast: Preben Hodneland, Marius Aandal Pedersen, Alexandra Gjerpen, Vidar Sandem, Morten Svartveit
Director: Magnus Meyer Arnesen
Screenwriters: Magnus Meyer Arnesen, Kristian Landmark
Producers: Gyda Velvin Myklebust, Magnus Kristiansen
Cinematographer: Ivar Taim
Editor: Jaak Ollino Jr.
Music: David Stephen Grant
94 minutes