‘Sparrows’: TIFF Review

Sparrows Still - H 2015
Courtesy of Toronto International Film Festival
A familiar story benefits from breathtaking locations and strong craft.

‘Volcano’ director Runar Runarsson premiered his second feature in Toronto.

A rather conventional coming-of-age drama bolstered by handsome visuals and a highly unique setting, Sparrows (Prestir) marks a solid if often predictable sophomore feature from Icelandic writer-director Runar Runarsson (Volanco). Following the travails of a Reykjavik teenager forced to live up north with his deadbeat dad, the plot takes us through the usual adjustment issues and adolescent angst, although the breathtaking locations, plus a few twists late in the game, help enhance what otherwise feels like a familiar story. After premiering in Toronto, the film should take flight at other festivals, with scattered bookings possible in overseas theaters and on select VOD outlets.

Runarsson’s gritty and realistic debut, Volcano, premiered in 2011 at the Cannes’ Directors’ Fortnight, revealing his talent for capturing the daily tribulations of his fellow Icelanders. Sparrows offers up another naturalistic look at life on the North Atlantic island, using the framework of a bildungsroman to show how one 16-year-old boy copes with the hardships of isolated living in a rough working-class town.

See more The Scene at TIFF 2015 (Photos)

When his mom moves to Africa, the tall, pale and unassuming Ari (Atli Oskar Fjalarsson) is sent to stay with his father (Ingvar E. Sigurosoon) in a remote seaside village surrounded by spectacular green mountains. It’s still the summertime, so instead of lounging about the house – which is pretty much what his dad does, accompanied by lots of beer and local floozies – Ari goes to work at the nearby fishery, where he strikes up a friendship with a kid his age and crosses paths with childhood pal, Lara (Rakel Bjork Bjornsdottir), who he clearly has a thing for.

Relocating to such a secluded place is far from easy, nor is reconnecting with a father who’s held a grudge ever since his divorce, wasting away with other native rednecks (or is it whitenecks?) as the summer draws to a close. Ari’s only consolation is his relationship with his grandmother (Kristbjorg Kjeld), who lives next door, and a love of choral singing that’s showcased in three memorable music scenes used to punctuate the action.

As in many such teenage dramas, Ari’s life will be upended by the big move and a few other major events, transforming him from an innocent choirboy into a young adult with some real-world experience. It’s a trajectory we’ve seen many times before, and several of the plot developments are fairly easy to telegraph, while a few others – especially what happens between Ari and Lara – take some surprising turns, underscoring the harsh and extremely macho lifestyle of the rugged townsfolk.

While the story offers nothing really new, Runarsson and DP Sophia Olsson make terrific use of the jaw-dropping atmosphere, isolating Ari against a backdrop of steep cliffs and choppy waters, most notably in a sequence where he goes seal hunting with his dad. Accompanied by a hypnotic score from former Sigur Ros keyboardist Kjartan Sveinsson, Sparrows benefits from strong tech contributions that enhance what feels like a commonplace teen movie set in a most uncommon place.

Production companies: Nimbus Film
Cast: Atli Oskar Fjalarsson, Ingvar E. Sigurosoon, Kristbjorg Kjeld, Rade Serbedzija, Rakel Bjork Bjornsdottir
Director, screenwriter: Runar Runarsson
Producers: Mikkel Jersin, Runar Runarsson
Executive producers: Brigitte Hald, Suza Horvat
Director of photography: Sophia Olsson
Production designer: Marta Luiza Macuga
Costume designer: Helga Ros Hannam
Editor: Jacob Schulsinger
Composer: Kjartan Sveinsson
International sales: Versatile

No rating, 99 minutes