The eponymous songbirds aren’t to be found onscreen in Icelandic helmer Runar Runarsson’s soph feature “Sparrows” — and even if they’re fluttering just outside the frame, they’re not feeling terribly chirpy. Hushed sensitivity is the order of the day in this measured, moving mini-bildungsroman, which sees Runarsson carrying over the observational exactitude and majestic sense of place that distinguished his strong 2011 debut “Volcano.” If, for all its stately virtues, “Sparrows” isn’t quite the step forward that might have been expected from the helmer’s follow-up, this outwardly conventional coming-of-ager rewards viewers’ patience, delivering a late narrative jolt that should stir some heated post-screening conversation in its chilly wake. Slightly broader in its appeal than “Volcano,” though missing the arthouse cachet of the latter’s Cannes selection, “Sparrows” could spread its wings modestly beyond Scandinavia.
A white, vaulted church ceiling is the first thing we see in “Sparrows,” before the camera pans down to reveal a matchingly pale-robed choir of angel-faced, crystal-voiced young men in full song — 16-year-old Ari (Atli Oskar Fjalarsson) among them. As a symbolic representation of the pic’s title, the image seems pretty obvious, though it soon emerges that Runarsson’s narrative features a wider range of characters waiting to take flight: Just as “Volcano” told a story of a man finding self-realization after retirement, the coming-of-age arc here isn’t limited to our teenage protagonist.
Ari’s maturation begins — to stretch the pic’s avian metaphor to breaking point — with something of a forced eviction from the nest, as his single mother packs up their Reykjavik home and departs for Africa to supervise a research project. Unable to accompany her, Ari is sent to live with his estranged father Gunnar (Ingvar E. Sigurosson), in the isolated Westfjords peninsula of his early upbringing. After six years’ absence, he’s dismayed to find Gunnar in something of an overgrown adolescent state himself: Drinking too much, working too little and exploiting the charity of his own mother (Kristbjorg Kjelt), in whose home he now lives.
It’s hardly a happy reunion, and Ari’s new environment — notwithstanding its blissful coastal setting, imposingly framed by mossy mountains — doesn’t prove much more welcoming outside the fractious walls of the family home. Long-lost childhood pal Lara (a quietly winning Rakel Bjork Bjornsdottir) makes friendly overtures, though Einar (Benedikt Benediktsson), her possessive knucklehead of a b.f., correctly senses a deeper current between them. Einar’s open hostility threatens the new kid’s foothold in an already narrow social circle, though Ari makes one firm friend, Bassi (Valgeir Skagfjord), on his otherwise bleak summer job at the local fish factory. Only singing appears to offer him an outlet of spiritual release — though it goes wholly unmentioned outside church.
Runarsson sets up this familiarly downcast scenario with sympathy for the unformed social codes of hormone-raddled teens. as well as a sharp eye for domestic ritual — often using, as in “Volcano,” the overwhelming geography of his setting to stress the indoor smallness of everyday life. (A stirring, reverberating score by former Sigur Ros multi-instrumentalist Kjartan Sveinsson is a further asset in this regard.)
It’s when the film veers disquietingly away from normality, instead exploring the damaging distortions and perversions of desire lying just beneath a minute community’s placid surface, that it becomes most emotionally penetrating. Ari and Gunnar’s predictable father-son conflict, moreover, is aggravated by shared frustrations, as both men’s independence is curbed by personal and economic circumstances — particularly galling in a region still dictated by unrefined ideals of masculinity.
A fine ensemble serves the solemn, largely internal demands of Runarsson’s sparse script, which occasionally lashes out with exclamations of melodrama — not unlike the sudden surges of its bottled-up protagonist. Yet Sophia Olsson’s shimmering, precipitation-hued lensing often positions the actors in subordinate positions to the wind-tousled landscapes and pewtery expanses of water that surround them, aptly reflecting their collective struggle for individual definition. Once again, Runarsson and Olsson have chosen to shoot in texture-rich 16mm, giving the image a soft graininess that works against any undue romanticization of the rustic locale.