Review: ‘We Shall Overcome’

A 13-year-old boy defies an abusive school principal in 1960s-set, social-issues drama "We Shall Overcome," the third feature from Danish helmer Niels Arden Oplev. Well-turned perfs and trim direction elevate what might have been merely average fodder. "Overcome" has a feel-good factor that can win hearts and minds on the fest circuit.

A 13-year-old boy (Janus Dissing Rathke) defies an abusive school principal (Bent Mejding) in 1960s-set, social-issues drama “We Shall Overcome,” the third feature from Danish helmer Niels Arden Oplev (“Chop Chop,” “Portland”). Although plot runs along predictable lines, well-turned perfs and trim direction elevate what might have been merely average fodder. A prize winner at the recent Gothenburg fest, “Overcome” has a feel-good factor that can win hearts and minds on the fest circuit and secure some theatrical bookings, but isn’t sufficiently revolutionary to conquer farther flung territories.

Adolescent Frits (charismatic Dissing Rathke, making a promising debut) arrives at the family farm one day in 1969 to find his father Peder (Jens Jorn Spottag) cowering behind the kitchen table, suffering from clinical depression. After Peder is packed off to the funny farm, Frits’ mother Stine (Anne-Grethe Bjarup Riis) buys the family their first TV, from which Frits learns all about the recently assassinated Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Frits soon begins middle school, but his longish hair quickly draws the ire of principal Lindum-Svendsen (Mejding, “Brothers”), a slap-happy martinet who regularly beats pupils in his office. After Frits is lured into spying on the girls’ changing room, Lindum-Svendsen twists his ear so hard, the boy requires stitches to have it reattached.

Kindly, quasi-hippie teacher Freddie Svale (topliner Anders W. Berthelsen, in a supporting role for a change) takes him to the doctor and offers moral support, but he seems to be the only school employee willing to support Frits and his family’s fight for justice.

Peder comes back from the hospital and joins Frits in a campaign to get the school board to take the abuse charges seriously. Frits starts wearing his hair in a Mohawk and, inspired by King’s example, practices nonviolent resistance at school. He and his family gradually win over key supporters, including pretty classmate Iben (Sarah Juel Werner).

Screenplay by Oplev and Steen Bille tightly braids together the various subplots. Although considerably softer in tone and topic than the violent, nihilistic pics helmer Oplev cut his teeth on, “Overcome” remains grittier than the average tween pic, but still recognizably mainstream and family-viewing friendly.

Grainy texture is added by use of 16mm stock by lenser Lars Vestergaard, although lighting schemes favor a sunny look that suggests a never-ending summer. Period rendering is fair, perhaps a little too obvious in its use of Jimi Hendrix posters to indicate time frame, but generally convincing.

We Shall Overcome



A Zentropa Entertainments11 (Denmark) production, in association with Naoz, Sigma III Films (U.K.), TV 2/Denmark, Adam Price & Camilla Hammerich Filmfyn, Erik Crone, with the support of the Danish Film Institute, Nordic Film & TV Fund, Nordisk Film. (International sales: Trust Film Sales, Copenhagen.) Produced by Sisse Graum Jorgensen. Executive producers, Peter Aalbaek Jensen, Peter Garde. Directed by Niels Arden Oplev. Screenplay, Oplev, Steen Bille.


Camera (color, 16mm-to-35mm), Lars Vestergaard; editor, Soren B. Ebbe; music, Jacob Groth; production designer, Soren Skjaer; costume designer, Manon Rasmussen; sound (Dolby SRD), Peter Schultz. Reviewed at Gothenburg Film Festival (competing), Feb. 2, 2006. (Also in Berlin Film Festival -- market.) Running time: 106 MIN.


Bent Mejding, Janus Dissing Rathke, Anders W. Berthelsen, Jens Jorn Spottag, Anne-Grethe Bjarup Riis, Peter Hesse Overgaard, Sarah Juel Werner. (Danish dialogue)

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