Phoenix

 

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A Norwegian filmmaker debuts with a work about a dysfunctional family.

 

Phoenix

Ylva Bjørkaas Thedin

 

The latest of many films with this title, Camilla Strøm Henriksen's Phoenix is her first feature and, given that she is the writer as well as the director, it is no surprise to learn that certain aspects of the story stem from experiences in her own life. But, while her heart is in it, I find her approach to the material misjudged.

 

Phoenix, set in Oslo, is a contemporary tale very much in two halves. The first jumps straight in to show us the central character, Jill played by Ylva Bjørkaas Thedin, looking after her mother, Astrid (Maria Bonnevie) and her young brother, Bo (Casper Falck-Løvás). Although Jill is only a schoolgirl just short of her fourteenth birthday, she has taken on this responsibility since the father, Nils (Sverrir Gudnason), is a musician almost always away from home and the mother's mental state renders her quite unable to look after the children and run the house adequately.

 

This grim situation is presented in naturalistic terms but I for one was immediately asking questions that were never answered. Astrid's incapacity is so evident that someone would surely have contacted the social services and, since she is an ex-teacher now out of work, one wonders how the bills are paid (dad's career may sound big time but doesn't exactly look it and indeed we later discover that he is a liar and in trouble). A friend of Astrid's encourages her to go for a job interview but would surely see that she was not up to it, yet she appears oblivious of this.

 

At times I wondered if Ylva Bjørkaas Thedin was quite as young as her character, but she gives a valiant performance despite which the unanswered questions made it difficult for me to believe in the situation depicted. The event which makes this a film of two halves comes as a surprise so it should not be revealed, but it can be said that dad arrives on the scene eventually and then plays a central role. This does not help matters, however, because both the focus and tone of the film now raise further doubts. Phoenix starts to show signs of becoming a psychological study, but only partially so: that's because dad's lifestyle takes up much of the narrative here but seems irrelevant to that aspect. Furthermore, despite the film's initial style, surreal touches are suddenly added, touches that would fit better into a horror movie, after which the film reaches a kind of open ending. The subject of a child forced to cope with situations that no youngster is really equipped to handle is a potent one and it clearly means much to this filmmaker. I can only hope that some audiences are drawn in by Phoenix and thus able to respond to it far more positively than I was able to do.

 

MANSEL STIMPSON

 

Cast: Ylva Bjørkaas Thedin, Maria Bonnevie, Sverrir Gudnason, Casper Falck-Løvås, Kjersti Sandal, Renate Reinsve, Nils Vogt, Frederik Stenberg Ditlev-Simonsen, Gard Tony Sønsthagen.

 

Dir Camilla Strøm Henriksen, Pro Gudny Hummelvoll, Screenplay Camilla Strøm Henriksen, Ph Ragna Jorming, Pro Des Eva Norén, Ed Sverrir Kristjánsson, Music Patrik Andrén, Costumes Ellen Ystehede.

 

Hummelfilm/Cineric Film AB/Rider Film/The Wychwood Moving Picture Company etc.-Verve Pictures.
86 mins. Norway/Sweden/UK/Lithuania. 2018. Rel: 13 September 2019. Cert. 15.