MCN Columnists
Kim Voynar

By Kim Voynar

TIFF Review: Behind Blue Skies

Swedish film Behind Blue Skies very strongly reminded me of Holy Rollers, Kevin Asch‘s Jesse Eisenberg-starrer about a young, fresh-faced Hasidic Jew whose greed lures him into a scheme to transport ecstasy from Amsterdam into the US using other young Hasidics as mules. And I don’t mean that in a bad way, as I actually liked Holy Rollers, which debuted at Sundance earlier this year, quite a lot.

Behind Blue Skies stars another fresh-faced young boy-man, Bill Skarsgård, as Martin, a not-so-well off kid with an abusive, alcoholic father, a mother who’s been broken by years of her drunken husband’s erratic behavior (the kind of role you might expect to see Paprika Steen in if this film were Danish instead of Swedish), and rich best friend Micke (Adam Pålsson) who has the kind of perfect family life Martin wishes he had.

School has just let out, and Micke’s is about to go off to on summer vacation at a resort town; Micke’s dad has found Martin a summer job at the resort, and invites him to come along. At first Martin doesn’t think he’ll be able to go — his mom, who runs a home daycare, is rundown and needs his help, and the young boy who grew up watching his father abuse his mom has grown into her protector, at least in an emotional sense. But Martin’s mom, sensing his urgent need to get away from his father and his normal life, sends him on his way in a beautifully conveyed, subtly drawn scene that shows without telling us just how much it’s costing the mother to send the son out of the nest.

So Martin goes along, expecting to work a summer job and otherwise pal around with his best bud, only to find when they arrive that Micke has a set of summer mates — rich boys like himself with money and time to spend playing — and that Martin’s being ditched at the resort to live in the staff quarters, not staying with Micke’s family as a guest and equal.

It’s a pivotal moment, and moreover, a moment Holm uses to underscore the strata of a Swedish class structure audiences outside of that country may be unfamiliar with … one that looks unsettlingly like our own. Which is not to say that Holm wrote this film for American audiences — I rather expect he intends the class critique layered throughout the film more for his fellow countrymen than folks from other places — but it was interesting to me to see this kind of stratification from a place that I generally think of as more firmly middle-class.

So Martin’s been brought along, essentially, to serve the class of people that Micke’s family represents, and Micke’s father inviting him in that capacity evokes very much the way in which Micke’s family views the boys as “different” even as they laud their son’s friendship with, and their patronage of, Martin to their other wealthy friends. Rich white guilt and condescension, apparently, know no borders

On his working-summer vacation, Martin grasps, perhaps for the first time, just how different he and Micke really are and how much money separates them. But this is really a story about Martin, and how to a kid from a dysfunctional family, any adult man who throws out a life preserver of “mentor” — even a dicey character — can hold sway over him.

Thus Martin gets involved with the uptight manager of the resort, Gösta (Peter Dalle), and soon finds himself over his head with some of Gösta’s not-so-legal “business dealings.” There’s also a girl Martin likes who’s a lot more complicated than she seems, and of course there’s the impotent rage Martin feels for his father to be addressed within the story.

Where all these pieces could come together in a trite and predictable way, Holm guides us mostly deftly through Martin’s summer coming-of-age into manhood. The script’s a bit predictable at times, but Skarsgård gives a deeply felt, soulful performance as the boy who goes through his own private trial by fire on his path to becoming a man.

What Holm really nails best, though, is the way in which Martin’s family’s dynamic is drawn feels quite authentic; if you’ve ever had an erratic person or an addict in your life, the scenes with Martin’s father may set you a bit on edge, as they did me — they’re that well-crafted.
In fact, the family dynamic is so expertly drawn here that I found myself wishing at times that Holm had just circumvented the summer resort storyline entirely and kept the focus on Martin’s relationship with his own family and what he learns about Micke’s, and found another dramatic way for the boy to grow into a man who could stand up to his father. Not that it’s bad as it is, I was just more interested in that angle of things.

While Behind Blue Skies lacks somewhat the tension and intensity that drove Holy Rollers, this is a solid, entertaining coming-of-age story, and, worth seeing for Skarsgård. I hope we’ll see a lot more of him in the future.

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“TIFF doesn’t make attendance numbers for its Lightbox screenings publicly available, so it’s difficult to gauge exactly how many filmgoers the Lightbox is attracting (or how much money it’s bringing in). But the King Street West venue hasn’t become a significant draw for film enthusiasts. The Lightbox’s attendance has plunged – 49,000 fewer visitors last year, a drop of 27 per cent, according to figures recently reported in the Toronto Star. Its gallery space – designed to showcase the visions of cinema’s most iconic filmmakers – saw most of its exhibitions staff quietly axed this past fall. And its marketing barely escapes the Lightbox’s walls. Unless you are a TIFF member or one of the city’s most avid filmgoers, you could walk by the Lightbox and remain blissfully unaware of a single thing that goes on inside. TIFF “still has a world-class brand,” said Barry Avrich, a filmmaker and former board member, “but it’s going to take some fresh vision from retail, consumer programming and marketing experts, given how the lines have become intensely blurred when it comes to how people watch film. They will have to experiment with programming to find the right blend of function and relevance.”
~ Globe & Mail Epic On State of Toronto Int’l (paywalled)

“I’m 87 years old… I only eat so I can smoke and stay alive… The only fear I have is how long consciousness is gonna hang on after my body goes. I just hope there’s nothing. Like there was before I was born. I’m not really into religion, they’re all macrocosms of the ego. When man began to think he was a separate person with a separate soul, it created a violent situation.

“The void, the concept of nothingness, is terrifying to most people on the planet. And I get anxiety attacks myself. I know the fear of that void. You have to learn to die before you die. You give up, surrender to the void, to nothingness.

“Anybody else you’ve interviewed bring these things up? Hang on, I gotta take this call… Hey, brother. That’s great, man. Yeah, I’m being interviewed… We’re talking about nothing. I’ve got him well-steeped in nothing right now. He’s stopped asking questions.”
~ Harry Dean Stanton