“My Life as a Dog,” Finnish-style, might be one way to describe “The Handcuff King,” a rare co-production between Finns and Swedes that shows tension and farcical humor in a border town. Unsentimental period piece is fair game for all fests — kid-friendly ones, especially — and, given recent success of “Man Without a Past,” it could see more interest than most Scandi fare.
Pic is set in the mid-’70s in the dead of winter. Twelve-year-old Esko (Miikka Enbuske) stands on the railroad bridge over a small river separating Finland and Sweden in the far north. He has a hood over his head and his hands handcuffed behind his back and he’s ready to jump — all this despite, according to flashbacks, the miserable failure of the same Harry Houdini trick earlier that night, during a fractious school talent show.
Other factors have led to this dire stand: His scrappy, long-suffering mother (Maija Junno), has finally left his ineffectual, drink-prone dad (Heikki Hela); his big brother (Arttu Kapulainen) fancies himself a rock star; and his almost mute, frequently incontinent grandfather (Sulevi Peltola) keeps wandering off lost in memories of being an airman on the wrong side of WWII.
But mostly Esko is getting over an unusual summer, in which he was befriended by Patrick (Emil Lundberg), an odd Swedish boy on the other side of the trestle. Patrick has a thing about magic, and he may need some, as auds figure out long before Esko does, that the shorn-haired boy has cancer.
While the clock is ticking, though, these two loners unite to play war, watch 8mm porn films, and fend off bullies from each side. Patrick also has a lithe, dark-haired older sister (Lina Hofverberg) who is unreasonably cruel to the cute, younger Esko, although this only seems to make him more interested.
Helmer-scripter Arto Koskinen throws viewers in the deep end and lets them sort out the politics and particulars of this goofy, dark-tinged time and place. Eventually, things click as relationships are revealed and fall organically into place. Period pop music helps, as does smooth, earth-toned lensing and smart, swift editing, tinged lightly by clever special effects. Wind-up has emotional payoff without ever hitting tube-movie notes.