Director: Sanna Lenken
Cast: Rebecka Josephson, Amy Deasismont, Annika Hallin, Henrik Norlen, Maxim Mehmet, Ellen Lindbom
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Written and directed by Sanna Lenken, this award-winning Swedish drama adds a fresh perspective to its issue-led story, emerging as more than just a standard movie-of-the-week in the process.
Set in contemporary Sweden (although the story it tells is universal), the film stars Rebecka Josephson (the granddaughter of famed Swedish actor Erland Josephson) as pudgy, ginger 12-year-old Stella, who both idolises and envies her older sister, Katja (former Scandi pop star Amy Deasismont), a beautiful, high-achieving teenager and a talented, competitive ice-skater.
Hanging out at the ice-skating rink so as to indulge her own crush on Katja’s teacher, Jacob (Maxim Mehmet), Stella notices her sister behaving strangely, something that’s confirmed when she catches her secretly vomiting after her birthday dinner. However, when Stella confronts her sister, Katja pressures her into keeping quiet, threatening to reveal her crush, if she tells their parents (Annika Hallin and Henrik Norlen) about her eating disorder.
Making her screen debut, Josephson delivers an assured, likeable and charming performance, akin to Abigail Breslin in Little Miss Sunshine, or Heather Matarazzo in Welcome to the Dollhouse. Her sweet, slightly chubby and deeply serious little face provokes instant sympathy, especially when it becomes clear just how little attention she’s paid by those around her.
Deasismont is equally good (although the nuances of her casting are perhaps lost on non-Scandi audiences), becoming more and more heart-breaking as we, along with Stella, realise just how deep her problem goes. There’s also strong support from Mehmet, who has a nicely judged scene where he’s confronted with and has to deal with Stella’s crush, while Hallin and Norlen are good as the parents, even if the story keeps them as largely peripheral, non-comprehending characters – their way of dealing with Katja’s problem, though well-intentioned, is painful to watch, in the film’s most harrowing scene.
Lenken’s script clearly draws on her own experiences (she battled anorexia as a teen and previously explored the subject in her 2013 short, Eating Lunch), and her direction is assured throughout, while her portrait of sibling relationship – equal parts love and rivalry – is extremely touching. The shift of focus (exploring Katja’s illness from Stella’s point of view) works well, in that it captures the helplessness and frustration of family members forced to deal with something they don’t understand, offering an involving and illuminating take on the subject. However, it’s fair to say that the shift in perspective also comes at the expense of a deeper understanding of Katja – perhaps that frustration is deliberate, but it still feels like her character is short-changed in the process.
The film is heightened by Moritz Schultheiss’ attractively sunny cinematography, which uses a few effective tricks (such as a 360-degree pan on the ice rink) and conjures up a number of memorable images, from the opening shot of a beetle crawling on Stella’s skin to the numerous close-ups of Josephson’s remarkable face. This is an engaging drama that conveys a strong message without resorting to sentimentality or melodrama.