Review: ‘Sons of Norway’

Jens Lien's bittersweet coming-of-ager is one of the funniest, most poignant Scandi dramedies since "My Life as a Dog."

How is it possible to rebel when your free-spirit father supports you unconditionally? Bittersweet coming-of-ager “Sons of Norway,” well helmed by the talented Jens Lien, is one of the funniest, most poignant Scandi dramedies since “My Life as a Dog.” The multilayered late-1970s period piece has the added hook of a guest appearance from Sex Pistols frontman and exec producer John Lydon (aka Johnny Rotten) and reps quality fare for niche distributors offshore.

The action takes place in Rykinn, a bedroom suburb of Oslo, built in an era of social democratic housing developments. Surprisingly, one of the architects behind this tidy, dehumanizing concrete enterprise is Magnus (Sven Nordin), a rambunctious hippie with rather unorthodox ideas on child rearing.

Magnus and his more practical wife, Lone (Sonja Richter), named their three sons after Russian czars, and it is through the unblinking cat eyes of 13-year-old Nikolaj (Asmund Hoeg) that the story unfolds. Nikolaj is quiet and small for his age, and his beloved mother’s death in a hit-and-run accident marks a terrible change that coincides with the onset of turbulent adolescence.

As Magnus is nearly immobilized by the tragedy, Nikolaj and best friend Tor (Tony Veitsle Skarpsno) channel their rage and alienation into punk rock. Pierced, painted and prickly with attitude, they challenge the status quo of their suburban hell in ways that rile the town fathers. Meanwhile, Magnus unquestioningly supports his son’s rebellion without recognizing or acknowledging the grief that fuels it.

The unusual father-son relationship provides many of the pic’s laughs (especially during the twosome’s summer holiday at a Swedish nudist camp) as well as Nikolaj’s more frustrating moments. The uninhibited Magnus doesn’t seem conscious of the line between father and friend, and he crosses it once too often for sensitive Nikolaj.

Those familiar with Lien’s previous film, “The Bothersome Man,” can see why he was attracted to the themes of screenwriter Nikolaj Frobenius’ autobiographical novel “Theory and Practice.” Here, too, is a protagonist trying to make a statement of individuality and anger in a conformist world where everyone is polite and everything is spotlessly clean.

Leading the topnotch craft package, kinetic lensing by Morten Soborg mirrors the seething energy of punk. Vibrant production design underlines the before-and-after rupture in time caused by the life-changing accident, with warm colors and cozy illumination cooling to the black clothing and the bleak light of alienation.

The punchy soundtrack includes a number of Sex Pistols songs as well as aggressive anthems played by Rykinn’s own punk ensemble. Jan Inge’s lightly used score also expresses Nikolaj’s vulnerability.

Casting is excellent across the board, with thesping to match. Communicating mostly through his eyes and body language, young Hoeg reps a real find.

Sons of Norway

Norway-France-Denmark-Sweden

Production

A Friland Produksjon, Les Films d'Antoine, Nimbus Film, Film i Vast, Gota Film production in collaboration with Sandrew Metronome, Canal Plus, Backup Films, NRK, Danmarks Radio, with the support of NFI, Eurimages, Nordisk Film and TV Fund, DFI, SFI, Centre National du Cinema et de L'image Animee, Media Program of the European Union. (International sales: Films Distribution, Paris.) Produced by Christian Fredrik Martin. Executive producers, John Lydon, Asle Vatn. Co-producers, Antoine Simkine, Bo Erhardt, Maja Dyekjaer, Tomas Eskilsson, Christer Nillsen. Directed by Jens Lien. Screenplay, Nikolaj Frobenius, based on his novel "Theory and Practice."

Crew

Camera (color, DV), Morten Soberg; editor, Vidar Flatukan; music, Jan Inge (Ginge); production designer, Are Sjaastad; sound (Dolby Digital), Joakim Sundstrom. Reviewed at Toronto Film Festival (Contemporary World Cinema), Sept. 13, 2011. (Also in Reykjavik Film Festival.) Running time: 87 MIN.

With

Asmund Hoeg, Sven Nordin, Sonja Richter, Tony Veitsle Skarpsno, Camilla Frisk, Trond Nilssen, John Lydon. (Norwegian, English dialogue)

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