'And Breathe Normally': Film Review | Sundance 2018

Courtesy of Sundance Institute
Unforced performances illuminate hotly debated issues.

An Icelandic border guard and a refugee from Guinea-Bissau become unexpected allies in a debut drama that premiered in Park City.

Two single mothers, one struggling on home turf and the other crossing borders in search of asylum, briefly become crucial to each other in Ísold Uggadóttir’s And Breathe Normally. Having made a number of well-regarded, female-focused short films, the Icelandic director graduates to features with a sure grasp of naturalistic performance and an eye for character-shaping landscape. Her spare three-hander — one woman’s young son is the third figure in the drama — builds a strong sense of emotional urgency as it unfolds against the edge-of-the-world setting of the Reykjanes Peninsula.

Yet the helmer, working from her own screenplay, doesn’t entirely conceal the schematic scaffolding beneath the action. If the provisional bond that the two women forge is unlikely, it also feels predetermined in narrative terms. That undercuts the impact of the story, if not its unsentimental insight and compassion. Through the prism of personality, the film tackles matters of poverty, addiction and sexual orientation while gazing head-on at the global refugee crisis.

Kristín Thóra Haraldsdóttir is at once frazzled and decisive as Lára, whose selection as a border guard trainee arrives not a moment too soon — she can barely keep herself and her son, Eldar (Patrik Nökkvi Pétursson), fed, and it’s just a matter of days before she’s evicted from her apartment. Her stubborn pride flares revealingly when, at the grocery store checkout, a stranger offers to cover what her debit card can’t. Later, with the understated concision that is one of the film’s key strengths, writer-director Uggadóttir exposes other reasons for the raw nerves. Lára’s troubling discovery of leftover drugs in a dresser drawer makes clear how fresh her recovery is. And her feelings for the mother of one of her son's classmates are unreciprocated, the other woman coldly signaling that she’s not about to publicly acknowledge their sexual relationship.

It’s no wonder that Lára clings to her new employment opportunity as if to a life raft. In her first hours as a guard-in-training, checking passports at the country’s international airport in Keflavik, she discovers a discrepancy that her colleague misses. It’s an all-important point in her favor, given how desperately she needs the job. At the same time, it’s a devastating setback for Adja (Babetida Sadjo), the woman from Guinea-Bissau whose papers turn out not to be legit.

Adja, played with powerful clarity by Sadjo, is trying to get to her daughter, who has already made it to Canada with Adja’s sister. The life-and-death necessity for her emigration is revealed late in the film, with a quietness that underscores the character’s pain and her strength. Sentenced to 30 days in a detention center for would-be immigrants, most of them from Africa, Adja is cast adrift in a bureaucratic limbo. "You just have to be patient and wait," a social worker tells her, offering no timeline or other details on what to expect.

The women’s paths cross again, on the windswept plain between the immigrants’ housing and the airport. That’s where Lára has parked the car that is now home for her and Eldar, turning eviction into an "adventure trip" and supermarket samples into supper. Eldar, who dreams of life in warm, sunny Spain, is the perfect yang to the intense Lára’s yin. Even-keeled, kind and gentle, he’s a devoted "dad" to his newly adopted cat, Músi, and Pétursson’s excellent performance never stoops to cutesiness.

It’s through the child Eldar, initially, that Lára and Adja connect, awkwardly closing the gap that places them on opposite sides of the law. When Adja is confronted with the woman who put her in detention, far from her own child, her higher-ground selflessness is perhaps too unhesitating, but Sadjo manages to embody both maternal instinct toward the boy and wariness toward the mother. And as it gradually emerges that the women have more in common than single parenthood, the writer-director guides the action toward a satisfying and resonant payoff while avoiding more obvious outcomes of her narrative setup.

The sensitive camerawork of DP Ita Zbroniec-Zaj deepens the nuanced performances and the setting’s powerful sense of desolation. Against the cold Icelandic landscape, Uggadóttir and her collaborators create a memorable, and idealistic, thaw. "It's just a system" is all that one bureaucrat can offer with a shrug. And Breathe Normally is concerned with the lives that hang in the balance.

Production companies: Zik Zak Filmworks, Entre Chien et Loup, Cinetic Films, Pegasus Pictures, Skot Productions
Cast: Kristín Thóra Haraldsdóttir, Babetida Sadjo, Patrik Nökkvi Pétursson
Director-screenwriter: Ísold Uggadóttir
Producer: Skúli Malmquist
Director of photography: Ita Zbroniec-Zaj
Production designer: Marta Luiza Macuga
Costume designer: Eva Vala Guðjónsdóttir
Editor: Frédérique Broos
Composer: Gísli Galdur
Casting director: Tinna Hrafnsdóttir
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (World Cinema Dramatic Competition)
Sales: The Match Factory 

In Icelandic, English and Creole

102 minutes