'Charter': Film Review | Sundance 2020

Courtesy of Sundance
'Charter'
A gutsy, discomforting look at some imperfect mothering.

Swedish filmmaker Amanda Kernell's sophomore feature centers on a divorced woman's impulsive decision regarding her estranged children.

Stories of children in peril are always distressing, but when the cause of their distress is that they've been kidnapped by their own mother, there’s an additional layer of warped psychology and disturbing motives involved. Such is the case in Charter, the second feature from Swedish writer-director Amanda Kernell, whose 2016 debut, Sami Blood, accrued numerous international awards. The experience of witnessing the mother’s erratic, selfish and illegal behavior ranges from aggravating to quite upsetting, but this portrait of a woman unhinged is so detailed and emotionally credible that it ultimately challenges the viewer to confront the complexity of the situation.

International commercial prospects look distinctly limited (especially with a title that is misleading and pretty meaningless, at least in an American context), but Kernell’s tenacious pursuit to the depths of her serious subject emerges as admirable and largely vindicates her courage in tackling such a tendentious topic.

Living in Stockholm since her split from husband Mattias (Sverrir Gudnason), Alice (Ane Dahl Torp) hightails it to a small far-northern community after receiving an alarming phone call from young son Vincent (Troy Lundkvist). Far from welcome there and greeted coldly by tween daughter Elina (Tintin Poggats Sarri), Alice tries to ingratiate herself while coming to grips with how successfully her ex has alienated the kids from her and shut her out legally.

In a rash and thoroughly illegal move, Alice sweeps the kids off for a week’s vacation in Tenerife, a popular vacation spot in the Canary Islands. The gorgeous settings, beaches and mountains are awash in euros, generic hotels and tourist attractions, and Alice strains mightily to create a “fun” time for the three of them. But the strangeness of the situation is not lost upon the kids, and there are many tense silences and awkward exchanges. It’s distressing to see them torn from their normal lives and put through such an ordeal.

But just as Alice is ready to throw in the towel, return her son and daughter to their home and face the consequences, the ice slowly begins to thaw in the tropical climate. At length, a few good times emerge, as well as more honesty and closeness among the trio, who by this time are being sought by the police. An increasingly nuanced reading of the fraught situation emerges as well, and Kernell’s tenacious digging for truth yields impressive results, even as the trio’s physical predicament in a seedy hotel becomes increasingly untenable.

The film is best in its moments of conflict and the tentative understanding that emerges from them, a tribute to the writer-director’s manifest desire to press beyond the messy surface truth, with its self-evident legal parameters. The angst, uncertainty and misguidedness of the central characters, first and foremost the mother, are traumatic in the extreme and not easy to watch, but you have to admire Kernell’s guts for blazing so fearlessly into a jungle of emotion in search of the heart of the matter.

Torp does the heaviest lifting here, as a troubled woman who may or may not be up to the job of comprehensive mothering; Alice's wildly unpredictable behavior and decisions are a burden to her children, who can hardly be expected to make sense of her moods. In the end, she seems like a woman of limited insight and reliability, traits that undoubtedly reflect insecurities and childhood experiences that go unexplored. The child actors are alive to the wide swings of emotion asked of them.

Venue: Sundance Film Festival (World Cinema Dramatic Competition)
Production: Nordisk Film Production Sverige
Cast: Ane Dahl Torp, Troy Lundkvist, Tintin Poggats Sarri, Sverrir Gudnason, Eva Melander, Siw Erixon
Director: Amanda Kernell
Screenwriter: Amanda Kernell
Producers: Lars G. Lindstrom, Eva Akergren
Director of photography: Sophia Olsson
Production designer: Sabine Hvild
Costume designer: Sandra Woltersdorf
Editor: Anders Skov
Music: Kristian Eldnes Andersen

In Swedish

94 minutes