Simon and the Oaks (Simon och ekarna): Film Review

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The life of the mind trumps family ties in Swedish coming-of-age tale.

Lisa Ohlin's coming-of-age film, nominated for several awards in its native Sweden, tells the emotional tale of a young boy's road to self-discovery during WWII.

SEATTLE — A literary coming-of-age tale in which WWII is just one more obstacle on the road to self-discovery, Lisa Ohlin's Simon and the Oaks (adapted from Marianne Fredriksson's novel) alternates languidly between wistful nostalgia and a more clear-eyed assessment of its protagonist's choices. A slew of award nominations in its native Sweden may elevate its prestige stateside, where getting onto the Oscar shortlist would certainly help theatrical prospects.
A dreamer whose hard-working parents don't have the luxury of intellectual pursuits, Simon convinces his boatmaker father to send him to an upper-class grammar school. There he befriends Isak, a hyper-sensitive Jewish boy ill-equipped to endure bullying from anti-Semitic classmates and terrified by the arrival of Nazis in their community.
Soon, a kind of role-model swap is taking place: Simon is dazzled by the books, art and music he encounters in the home of Isak's father Ruben (Jan Josef Liefers), a wealthy bookstore owner, while Isak draws comfort from learning to do something with his hands, helping Simon's dad (Stefan Gödicke) make boats. Soon, Simon's parents take Isak in, offering to insulate him from increasing harassment in the city.
When the film moves from 1939 to 1945, it finds Simon (now played by Bill Skarsgård, son of Stellan) finally ready to make a thorough break with home. Ohlin observes without judgment as the young man shows little regard for his parents' feelings, living an intellectual's life with Ruben and experiencing the world beyond his waterfront village. (A troubling tryst with Katharina Schüttler's Isa, freshly liberated from a concentration camp, offers a kind of emotional turning point.)
Fredriksson's narrative underscores Simon's callousness by pairing his withdrawal with the start of health problems for his mother (Helen Sjöholm, the most emotionally compelling presence here). The device is obvious, but Ohlin doesn't linger on the guilty feelings it provokes -- preferring to frame Simon's reaction to his mother's condition as just an interim point on his path to discovering the person he was meant to be.
Bottom Line: The life of the mind trumps family ties in Swedish coming-of-age tale

Venue: Seattle International Film Festival, Show Me The World
Production Company: GötaFilm
Cast: Bill Skarsgård, Helen Sjöholm, Jan Josef Liiefers, Stefan Gödicke
Director: Lisa Ohlin
Screenwriter: Marnie Blok
Producer: Christer Nilsson
Executive producers: Per Holst, John M Jacobsen, Sveinung Golimo, Steffen Reuter, Patrick Knippel, Marc-Daniel Dichant, Leander Carell
Director of photography: Dan Laustsen
Production designers: Anders Engelbrecht, Lena Selander    
Music: Annette Focks
Costume designer: Katja Watkins
Editors: Kasper Leick, Michal Leszczylowski
No rating, 121 minutes