Despite the title, there’s nothing very fanciful about the trials endured by the heroine of “It’s Only Make Believe,” or her doggedly realistic responses to them. Still, there’s a breathless hyperreality to Arild Ostin Ommundsen’s latest feature that lends spontaneity and verve to a tale that might well have been played as relentlessly downbeat. Starring the multihyphenate’s muse Silje Salomonsen as a young woman who pays mightily — then pays some more — for some early law-flaunting behavior, it’s not quite a straightforward thriller or character study. It’s not quite awards material, either (though Ommundsen did get a home-turf Amanda Award for his cinematography), but its fresh tilt on potentially cliched melodrama could win it some offshore sales in various formats.
Rockabilly-do’d Frank (Fredrik Hana) and apple-cheeked Jenny (Salomonsen) are a Norse Bonnie and Clyde lite, feckless lovebirds who doing some petty drug dealing for thug types of whom they should be warier. Tasked with picking up “a small bag of hash” at a locked commercial greenhouse one night, they discover a much more serious quantity of illegal goods, then find themselves trapped. The panicked shootout that ensues offscreen results in one person dead, another gravely wounded, and a pregnant Jenny sentenced to prison for murder.
Nine years later, not much the worse for wear — a guard’s parting hug suggests she’s hardly become tough-as-nails in the interim — Jenny is ready to restart her life and reclaim her daughter. But it’s not so easy: The foster mother (Kjersti Ostin Ommundsen) who’s raised Marete (Iben Ostin Hjelle) is reluctant to let her go, while the house Jenny has apparently inherited needs expensive renovations. This issue puts her in touch with a bank loan officer (Tomas Alf Larsen) who turns out to be a still-smitten former classmate.
As if these legal and economic hurdles weren’t enough, she’s soon all too unpleasantly aware that despite having “paid her debt to society,” erstwhile criminal allies/superiors think she still has a long way to go before her debt to them is paid. So rather than going straight as intended, Jenny is in deeper than ever with the sinister, untrustworthy likes of Adne (Vegar Hoel), Tonder (Ole Romsdal) and a particular sleazebag named “Eddie Vedder” (Egil Birkeland). They force her into dangerous situations, don’t shrink from cuffing this petite woman around, and even abduct her child.
Well before the violent footchase climax, Jenny takes a lot of abuse. While Salomonsen’s angelic blonde looks sometimes make her seem too lightweight a presence for this role, they also lend Jenny’s resiliency a faint princess quality that renders the “fairy tale” ending (however ambiguous) inevitable, and the more brutal incidents bearable. Like many a storybook heroine, she must survive some very Grimm travails before being rewarded with her happily-ever-after.
Casting his wife, daughter and sister, and taking nearly every principal behind-the-camera role himself, Ommundsen (“Mongoland,” “Monsterthursday”) nonetheless easily transcends any fears of clannish indulgence. Indeed, it’s his skittering, restless tenor as editor and lenser that most conspicuously lifts the pic above the realm of lurid criminal potboiler. Another plus is a soundtrack full of pleasingly offbeat various-artist selections (including ’70s Burt Reynolds singing a Bobby Goldsboro song). Perfs and tech package are solid.