'Becoming Astrid' ('Unga Astrid'): Film Review | Berlin 2018

Courtesy of Berlin International Film Festival
Conventional but well-made.

The latest film from Danish director Pernille Fischer Christensen ('A Soap') casts Alba August as the young Astrid Lindgren.

The early adult life of Astrid Lindgren, the spiritual mother of such timeless children’s heroes as Pippi Longstocking and Karlsson-on-the-Roof, is explored in Becoming Astrid (Unga Astrid). Pernille Fischer Christensen’s biopic might feel quite modern because of its fluid use of loosely handheld camerawork, but purely in terms of the narrative, this is a very conventional coming-of-age story about a young woman in pre-war Sweden. Though framed by a few scenes in the 1980s, the bulk of the film focuses on her youth in the first decades of the 20th century, as Lindgren transforms from a local newspaper editor’s secretary into the unwed mother of her married boss’ child, much to the displeasure of her religious parents. While her little boy grows up in Denmark, away from prying eyes, the future giant of children’s literature has to try and make a life for herself in a man’s world.

In Scandinavia, where generations grew up on Lindgren’s stories and where the supporting cast, which includes Maria Bonnevie, Trine Dyrholm and Maria Fahl Vikander (mother of Oscar-winner Alicia), is well-known, the subject and names involved will together assure some commercial potential. Further afield, reception will probably be more tepid, though it’s unlikely this will be the last we will have seen of impressive young lead Alba August (daughter of director Bille and actress Pernilla), who could use her impressive turn here as a springboard for greater things to come.

Blonde and open-faced 16-year-old Astrid Ericsson (August) is so bored in her Swedish village, where parochial dances are about as exciting as it gets, that she sometimes feels like screaming. So when Reinhold (Henrik Rafaelsen, Thelma), the local newspaper editor, asks her to come and help him out after he’s read one of her essays, she readily agrees. She’s soon writing pieces on her own and copying the latest fashion in hair from the imported magazines in the office, trading in her long hair for a modern bob. The early setup of her life in mid-1920s small-town Sweden couldn’t be more conventional, right down to the shot of the old-fashioned barber’s eyeroll when she asks for that supposedly daring new haircut.

(Spoilers ahead in this paragraph only.) The potential for conflict and drama arises when Reinhold and Astrid fall in love. Despite the obvious age difference, the two really seem to have a connection beyond what happens in the bedroom, which is vital because for much of the rest of the film, they will be kept apart by Reinhold’s mostly unseen wife, who not only contests his request for a divorce but has actually taken him to court over charges of adultery. This informs Astrid’s decision to disappear from the local scene and  go to Stockholm to have the child (while studying to be a secretary there) and, later, have the little boy grow up in Denmark with a kind local woman (Dyrholm, on her sixth collaboration with Christensen). August is especially good in the film's midsection, as Astrid is forced to find her sea legs as an independent young woman who has to make some tough decisions. 

The film’s original title just means “Young Astrid,” whereas the international moniker suggests the film will also say something about how Lindgren became the famous writer we all know. But the script, written by the director and her regular collaborator Kim Fupz Aakeson, one of Denmark's most prolific screenwriters, doesn't quite deliver on that implicit promise. The story ends before even one of Astrid's books has been written, though we do get to see how she supposedly met the man who would give her the Lindgren name. 

A framing device sees a much older Astrid in the 1980s (played by Fahl Vikander) open mail from her pint-sized fans for her birthday, with their questions and comments occasionally heard in voiceover between scenes. It’s a cute idea, but not one that’s really used logically or exploited fully. A question such as “How come you can write so well about children when you haven’t been one for so long?” is of course a fascinating one. But in the context of this particular story, it is also one that remains unanswered — unless it needs to be inferred that Lindgren can write so well about children because she had one at a young age, which seems very reductive.

Becoming Astrid might nominally be about the young woman who would become Astrid Lindgren, famed children’s author, but in the film, she’s still Astrid Ericsson, a young girl growing up in small-town Sweden who struggles but slowly succeeds to put her life in order.

Production companies: Avanti Film, Nordisk Film Production
Cast: Alba August, Maria Bonnevie, Magnus Krepper, Henrik Rafaelsen, Trine Dyrholm, Maria Fahl Vikander
Director: Pernille Fischer Christensen
Screenplay: Kim Fupz Aakeson & Pernille Fischer Christensen
Producers: Maria Dahlin, Anna Anthony, Lars G. Lindstrom
Executive producer: Henrik Zein
Director of photography: Erik Molberg Hansen
Production designer: Linda Janson
Costume designer: Cilla Rorby
Editors: Asa Mossberg, Kasper Leick
Music: Nicklas Schmidt
Casting: Jeanette Klintberg, Djamila Hansen, Jette Termann
Venue: Berlin International Film Festival (Berlinale Special)
Sales: Trustnordisk

In Swedish, Danish
123 minutes

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