'Underdog' ('Svenskjävel'): Gothenburg Review

Underdog Still - H 2015
Courtesy of Cinenic

Underdog Still - H 2015

Swede dreams turn sour in this superior Nordic love triangle drama

Swedish novelist Ronnie Sandahl weighs up the social and emotional cost of financial crisis in his prize-winning debut feature

A young Swedish immigrant begins a steamy affair with her married Norwegian boss in this timely contemporary drama, the feature debut by novelist turned writer-director Ronnie Sandahl. Putting a personal twist on the aftershocks of the global financial crash, Underdog made its domestic debut at the Gothenburg film festival earlier this month following a short tour of global festivals, including Chicago, where Sandahl won the top prize for a new director. Opening theatrically in Sweden and Norway next month, this quietly impressive exercise in Nordic naturalism should snag further festival slots, with potential for niche distribution overseas on the strength of its topical theme and solid Scandinavian craftsmanship.

A Swedish-Finnish actor and feminist comic known domestically for her satirical YouTube clips, Bianca Kronlöf stars as 23-year-old Dino, one of thousands of young Swedish émigrés scrabbling for work in the Norwegian capital of Oslo. A clueless employment agency sends her to work for Steffen (Henrik Rafaelsen), a retired tennis star who now runs a busy sushi restaurant, but he turns her away as she has a broken arm. However, Dino forms an easy bond with Steffen’s teenage daughter Ida (Mona Kristiansen), a shy misfit quietly tormented by body and food issues, and seizes the chance to volunteer her child-minding services.

Before long, Dino snags a job as housekeeper at Steffen’s plush suburban home. But with his semi-estranged wife absent on an extended work project, sexual tension between employer and employee begins to crackle. An affair begins, raising eyebrows among Steffen’s friends. Ida also finds Dino an object of fascination, adopting her as both feminine and feminist role model. With its stolen kisses and full-frontal made nudity, this lusty summer romance inevitably does not last, but it unravels in a manner that makes a cautiously positive statement about class and gender empowerment. There is more than one underdog in Sandahl’s doomed love triangle.

The background to Underdog is the see-sawing power balance between Scandinavia’s two biggest economies, with longtime poor cousin Norway becoming hugely rich on North Sea oil revenue in recent years while neighboring Sweden has suffered financial slump and spiraling unemployment. This has triggered the largest wave of Swedish emigration in modern times, even bigger than the exodus of farm workers to the Midwestern US in the late 19th century. The script is full of spiky reflections on this shifting national rivalry: "we think of you as a retarded cousin who won the lottery", Dino quips at a dinner party full of nouveau-riche Norwegians.

Touching on Scandinavia’s tarnished self-image as a classless paradise, plus rising tensions across the region about immigration, Sandahl weaves a tender human drama from timely social and political ingredients. Kronlöf brings an earthy emotional truth to Dino, neither saint nor sinner, though she sometimes appears a little too passive in her struggles against poverty and patriarchy. The softly twinkling score by Stein Berge Svendsen and Gunn Tove also strikes an incongruously sentimental note, much like the final reckoning between Dino and Ida, which feels too neat and too sweet. But overall, Underdog is an emotionally engaging ride, as well as an assured big-screen bow for both director and star.

Production companies: Anagram Produktion, Cinenic Film

Cast: Bianca Kronlöf, Henrik Rafaelsen, Mona Kristiansen

Director, screenwriter: Ronnie Sandahl

Producers: Annika Hellström, Gudny Hummelvoll, Martin Persson

Cinematographer: Ita Zbroniec-Zajt

Editor: Åsa Mossberg

Music: Stein Berge Svendsen, Gunn Tove

Sales company: The Yellow Affair

Unrated, 100 minutes