Based on a popular Swedish novel by Marianne Fredriksson, Simon and the Oaks starts off as a familiar coming-of-age drama set during the 1940s. When rural boy Simon Larsson (played as a child by Jonatan S. Wächter and by Bill Skarsgård as a teen) gets accepted to an elite school, he strikes up a friendship with Isak Lentov (Karl Martin Eriksson and Karl Linnertorp), whose wealthy Jewish family has emigrated from Germany to escape the Third Reich. Sweden doesn’t provide refuge for long, however, and the Nazi occupation endangers not only the Lentovs but also Simon, for reasons his parents are reluctant to explain.
The film shifts focus as the boys gravitate toward each other’s fathers — Simon toward the urbane Ruben Lentov (Jan Josef Liefers), who encourages his musical leanings by taking him to concerts, and Isak toward the rough-hewn Erik Larsson (Stefan Gödicke), who teaches him carpentry. More story turns, love interests, and family secrets lie in store after the war ends. The film’s literary pedigree proves both an asset and a liability: it unfolds novelistically, revealing its richness in layers rather than simply advancing from beat to beat, but some of its themes and subplots have clearly been compressed, some to the point of inscrutability. (Not the least of these is the mystical connection suggested by the title.) The film also makes excessive use of double exposure and montage as emotional shorthand when glossing over some of its narrative leaps.
Simon and the Oaks is director Lisa Ohlin’s fourth feature, and the first to receive theatrical release in the United States. It is gorgeously shot by veteran cinematographer Dan Laustsen, and is exceptionally well acted (Liefers and Cecilia Nilsson, who plays a strange neighbor with a hidden connection to Simon’s family, both won the Guldbagge Award, Sweden’s top film honor). TMT’s recent review of the documentary Six Million and One referred to the inexhaustibility of the Holocaust as a subject. Simon and the Oaks provides another example of this, beginning simply and going on to develop a complex set of relationships driven by trauma, desire, guilt, and regret.