Childhood pain is perhaps best left forgotten—but director Ruben Östlund prefers to rub your face in it. Were you ever the victim of bullying? Or can you remember formative experiences with racism, specifically feelings of guilt or shame at your own instinctual reactions? Östlund can certainly take the moral high road and, admittedly, sometimes takes it a bit too high. He has reconstructed a real-life Swedish crime spree in which immigrant youths intimidated other kids into handing over their cell phones. And he’s assembled an impeccable cast of amateurs to do so.
A marauding quintet of African teens set their sights on a trio of slightly younger, nerdy, middle-class victims (two white, one Asian). The film that results is an unsettling treatment of race and class division: of course, impoverished children of color are threatening and prone to crime and violence; naturally, kids from more privileged backgrounds care more about things such as new sneakers or their clarinet lessons; and clearly, politically correct grandstanding will come into ironic play.
Shots are held for long durations, in often wide, mostly fixed-camera compositions that enclose the kids in prison-like frames while they—and we the audience—sweat it out, waiting for bad things to happen. (When the camera does move, it’s usually to emphasize spatial anxiety.) Thankfully, the film also shows a facility for conveying the lighter moments of juvenile interaction. There are brief passages of relief in which the sense of impending violence lifts to reveal simple, good-natured-youngster camaraderie. As if the whole ordeal might just be a (playful) game. Maybe, after all the torment, things will end well?
Sales Agent: Coproduction Office