A sensitive teenage loner contends with bullies at school and abuse from his stressed-out single mom at home in the harrowing Swedish drama “Sebbe.” Buoyed by intense, emotionally credible performances and confident visuals, this debut feature by Iran-born, Sweden-based writer-helmer Babak Najafi falls in the compassionate social-realist tradition of Andrea Arnold, Ken Loach and the Dardenne brothers. Slice-of-life narrative lacks a kayo punch to make it stand out from similar fare in the marketplace, but the well-turned pic marks Najafi as a talent to watch. Due for limited local release in March, it’s fest fare offshore.
Barely scraping by, 15-year-old Sebastian (nonpro Sebastian Hiort af Ornas) and his thirtysomething mother, Eva (Eva Melander), share a tiny apartment in a rundown housing estate in a Gothenburg suburb. Although the boy obviously adores her, she’s prone to calling him names and telling him he wasn’t wanted.
Small for his age and friendless, Sebbe is mercilessly tormented by a clique of boys who make his school life a living hell. His sole comfort comes from his talent for converting discarded junk into functional objects.
When Eva heedlessly steals another boy’s jacket as a belated birthday gift for Sebbe, the present precipitates further humiliations for the increasingly desperate lad.
Recalling the young Jeremie Renier of the Dardennes’ “La Promesse,” Hiort af Ornas is a true find, projecting an intensity and bottled-up pain that energizes the screen during the pic’s many extreme closeups. He gives Sebbe the wary attitude of an oft-kicked dog, unable to count on anything but still willing to give his abusers the benefit of the doubt. Expressive theater thesp Melander matches him every step of the way as the disturbed woman who has mixed feelings about motherhood but unfortunately lacks the grace to keep them private.
Although Najafi displays admirable control with his actors and sharply composed widescreen visuals, he overstuffs the screenplay with loose incidents without exploiting their full dramatic potential. Pic would have had more impact if at least one storyline reached climax and catharsis.
Shooting on location with a wintry blue-green palette, lenser Simon Pramsten frames his wide shots to underscore Sebbe’s feelings of isolation and alienation. Also notable in the sleek tech package is the ominous industrial-noise score.