The economical/ecological paradox at the heart of tyro helmer Sofia Norlin’s impressive “Broken Hill Blues” could not be clearer: The northernmost Swedish town of Kiruna fiscally depends on the iron-ore mine that is dangerously undercutting the town’s very foundation, leaving its youth anxious and bereft of options. Extraordinarily evocative of place as it juxtaposes primeval nature and complex industrial formations, and acted with convincing adolescent angst by a cast that includes non-pro locals, the film lacks only narrative clarity, its minimalist story threads and similar-looking characters proving hard to follow. But Norlin’s compelling imagery weaves its own hypnotic throughline, marking her as a director to watch.
In both reality and Norlin’s fiction, Kiruna stands on unstable ground and must be relocated, but no one knows quite when or where, enveloping the townfolk in perpetual uncertainty. Throughout the film, dark rumblings break the silence and the earth trembles, setting glasses bouncing off shelves or dancing on tables. The radio routinely broadcasts daily mine-blasting hours, while the score by Conny Nimmersjo and Anna-Karin Unger effectively echoes the waxing and waning of familiar fears.
Although it mainly revolves around two teenagers, Marcus (Sebastian Hiort af Ornas) and Daniel (Alfred Juntti), “Broken Hill Blues” is confusingly awash in fairly identical-looking slim, blond youths who are seldom addressed by name. Indeed, Norlin’s characters rarely speak at all, the film nearly approaching pantomime as it progresses. But Marcus’ every gesture shouts “angry young man”: Perpetually thwarted in his single-minded desire to become a mechanic, he is inexorably driven to work in the mines where his father died and his older brother now toils.
Daniel, on the other hand, seems to do nothing outside school other than hang out with a gang of older thugs and sulk about his drunken father (Par Andersson). Introverted even for this bunch of laconics, and usually half-hidden in a hoodie, Daniel struggles to embrace their culture of violence, his one bloodthirsty act leaving him shaken and bereft.
Around these towheads, Norlin assembles various female figures. There’s an enigmatic little girl who wanders the woods in imagery that evokes the beginning of creation. And then there are the guys’ actual or potential love interests: Marcus seems genuinely enamored of the peaceful, smiling, quasi-bovine Helena (Jenny Sandberg), his anger completely defused during their tender trysts. Finding her gone from her house, he precariously piles chairs, tires and lumber on a trampoline to climb up to her window and chivalrously deposit a bouquet of wildflowers on the sill.
Potential g.f. Zerin (an excellent Lina Leandersson, the expressive child vampire of “Let the Right One In”) plays a far more peripheral role in Daniel’s life than Helena does in Marcus’. Unlike just about everyone else in the film except the car-obsessed Marcus, Zerin actively pursues outside interests, competently and intelligently exercising her talents as an amateur shutterbug and competitive swimmer.
But in this remote, almost wordless corner of Lapland, even broad actions come off as secondary to the striking landscape, captured by Petrus Sjovik in stunning long shots, either fantastically encrusted in ice and snow, or gently blooming in verdant profusion. While miners descend into uncertain darkness below, the youths above drive around in aimless circles or climb mountains in quasi-mystical walkabouts.