Every summer, the Polish workers come to the Swedish countryside and pick strawberries. They arrive by caravan, tending the fields all day and keeping to themselves at night, while the landowners hardly bother to learn their names. It’s a cycle as sure as the seasons themselves, yet “Strawberry Days” depicts a rupture in that orderly routine, now that one of the foreign fruit-pickers’ kids is old enough to take an interest in the host family’s daughter. There, in the luminous glow of summer, a case of young love blossoms for the first time, complicating the entire arrangement.
In this sensitive, sun-kissed teenage romance, Swedish director Wiktor Ericsson invites audiences to recognize and identify with these faceless outsiders, asking for equality on the simplest terms. Similar dynamics can be found around the world, including in Hollywood’s own backyard, where physical labor often falls to foreign and undocumented workers. Though the setting may be specific, its appeal is universal, boasting a texture so rich, you can practically smell the ripe strawberries in the air — which makes this alternately sensual and sensitive feature a strong pick for festivals and arthouses in nearly every corner of the world.
The movie spans one summer, opening with the arrival of a married couple and their teenage son Wojtek (Staszek Cywka) in the Polish countryside. Every hour is magic hour here, as the faces, the landcape and the fruit itself all give off a lovely honey-golden glow for cinematographer Nadim Carlsen’s supple camera, which practically caresses the characters. Cywka was a wonderful discovery. Who knows what kind of actor he will grow into, but at this precise moment, he’s caught between adolescence and adulthood: soft, pale and covered in peach fuzz when viewed head-one, but in profile, distinguished by a dramatic, oversized nose that could take him decades to grow into. In other words, his unique look suggests both his youth and the man he will one day soon become.
Wojtek initially appears shy, stealing glances of the farm owner’s daughter, Anneli (Nelly Axelsson), who hardly notices him at first. In town, he hangs out with the other Poles, but his eyes wander to where she sits, awkward among her friends. Director Ericsson expertly constructs these early scenes, achieving a kind of subjectivity through camera placement and editing that reinforces the hesitant way the two characters size one another up, eroticizing the details (the way she absentmindedly brushes her hair behind her ear, for instance) and inviting us to share in the growing sexual tension.
Walking home, Wojtek crosses a bridge and hears a splash behind him. Anneli has thrown herself in, and he gallantly (if unnecessarily) comes to her rescue. Since neither speaks the other’s language, they communicate in a kind of broken English, rendering their courtship all the more childish and innocent, even when sitting half-naked in an abandoned house (her grandmother’s), gently touching and teaching how to say the words “heart” or “breast” in their native language. When not alone, however, they pretend not to know one another — as when her friends come over to celebrate her birthday while Wojtek stands on a ladder repairing the house in the background.
Their behavior (coupled with common sense) tells us what the screenplay needn’t go out of its way to explain: If her friends found out, they would beat him up. Her parents may be progressive enough to treat him nicely, but they wouldn’t approve of how far their flirtation has already taken them. His parents wouldn’t be happy either, as such a relationship could jeopardize their employment.
It’s comfortable work, but far from perfect, and Ericsson does go out of his way to educate the audience on how subtle inequities lead to bigger problems. The Polish workers don’t earn enough picking (plus the farmers are slow to pay), which leads Wojtek and his young friends to seek easy money in other ways, such as selling cheap vodka or stealing from a local scrap yard — the latter an example of the kind of crime that inevitably encourages distrust of the visiting workers. But the Poles are equally capable of jumping to racist stereotypes, as when we see them disparaging the relatively comfortable Lithuanian migrants willing to work for less. It’s all part of a complex ecosystem whose many nuances the film ably explores.
In a slightly more disruptive subplot, something’s wrong with Wojtek’s mother (Julia Kijowska), who passes out while strawberry picking at one point, revealing the fact that the employers offer no protection for their workers’ health. This in turn triggers a violent confrontation with the foreman — vaguely reminiscent of Mercutio and Tybalt’s duel in “Romeo and Juliet” — and leads the film out onto an unnecessary political limb from which it never returns. When romance is blooming, we want “Strawberry Days” to last forever, but instead of finding its way back to the star-crossed love story at the film’s center, the fight abruptly brings things to a close, leaving us with vivid memories of an exceptional summer and little sense of where the story can go from here.