We’re all familiar with the usual depictions of childhood in film. Childhood is a magical time of wonder, or an agonizing journey through abuse and neglect, or a running gag about how adults just don’t “get it,” or, especially common, a squirm-inducing essay on awkwardness and the pangs of self-discovery. The problem with these depictions is that they’re all true, all valid elements common to childhood that, even when presented as standalone paradigms, will always ring true to some extent. Rarely are films made in which all of these facets of the childhood experience are combined into a well-blended portrayal of a kid who is treated with the same thoughtfulness as the most serious portrait of adult complexity. Rarely does a film show you a child who is allowed to be a real person, one who is not defined solely by her age. Flickan (The Girl), from Sweden, is just such a film, and it’s a masterful first feature for director Fredrik Edfeldt. Although it treats its heroine, the titular Girl (Blanca Engström), as a confoundingly complicated person who just happens to be 10 years old and doesn’t define her by her tender age, it is smart enough to recognize that her age must play a part in her movements as a character. After all, she may have depth, but she can’t have much breadth.
Flickan tells a fairly straightforward story. In 1981, a 10-year-old girl is left in the care of her flaky aunt Anna (Tova Magnusson-Norling), while her parents and older brother spend the summer without her in Africa doing international relief work. She’s pretty pissed off about being left behind, but soon she’s even more pissed off, what with Anna’s consistent drunkenness and the annoying late-night parties she throws. In a stroke of prepubescent genius, the Girl works an angle — a forged, ransom-style note to a cute guy who wants to take Anna sailing — and flaky Aunt Anna flakes off on an allegedly just-for-the-weekend sailing trip, giving our heroine some much-desired peace in her airy country home. Hooray! But then comes the catch: the weekend of alone time becomes an entire summer of near-hermitry. Anna doesn’t return, and the Girl is left entirely alone for what seems simultaneously like mere days and an endless season, a hazy warped-time-sense that is appropriate for childhood remembrance and summers in general, and that is fostered by Hoyt van Hoytema’s dreamy and gorgeously sun-soaked photography.
The events of the summer season are varied and significant, and sometimes funny, but never lapse into melodrama or slapstick. Nosy neighbors come trespassing and drive away drunk on Mom’s expensive whiskey. Boys are sexually assaulted by older teen girls. Tadpoles are caught and grow to fat, knobby frogs. A chubby 13-year-old does a strip tease for the local town’s Better Business Bureau. As friendships are forged, torn asunder, and rebuilt, as minor lottery fraud is committed and found out, as month-long constipation is resolved via a DIY soap-and-water enema, and as the Girl sinks deeper into the unhealthy myopia of solitude, she remains steadfastly herself, but manages to gain a little breadth without the wholesale upheaval of her personality or the gaining of some weighty “lesson.” And although the plot is straightforward, the Girl’s character shadings are not: she is oddly unromantic, unexpectedly shrewd, disarmingly dour, a weird combination of both bold and wussy, and grumpily good-natured. Outside of a manipulative commercial, you’ve probably never seen a kid who frowns this much and is still this cute. The supporting characters are similarly complex and interesting, especially Anna, who offers surprisingly astute life advice for an aimless wastrel.
I’m no expert, but this all seems to be well in line with my experience of Swedish cinema. Aside from the obvious parallels to be drawn to Pippi Longstocking — another impish, red-headed 10-year-old girl who lives alone in a huge and isolated country house — there are also comparisons to be made with a certain dragon-tattooed lass who’s been pretty popular of late. That title character doesn’t fit into a neat mold, either, and her stubborn independence, parental abandonment issues, and inner conflict between being self-serving and “doing the right thing” often get her into scrapes, as well, but on an admittedly larger scale. This tradition of nuance goes for male characters, too — the perfect example being Stellan Skarsgård’s dubious-yet-empathetic detective in Insomnia (1997). I’m starting to get the feeling that the Swedes are not interested in drawing neat, convenient portraits of their heroes — at least not all the time. Might this tendency tap into their roots in Norse mythology? After all, Thor seems like a simple, hammer-wielding, thunder-and-lightning-making supergod, but he’s also associated with oak trees (as in, the kind that get struck by lightning), fertility, and healing, and has 14 different names. If I’m actually on to something here, it’s fair to say that we have many more interesting films to look forward to from the land of Bergman.