How is it possible that no one thought to warn Jesper Ganslandt that putting blond Swedes in the role of fleeing refugees, in order to make today’s humanitarian crisis more accessible to Westerners, was a really, really bad concept? Good intentions make lousy paving stones, and in the case of “Jimmie,” the road leads to a seriously misguided place. Shot in a late Malickian style and starring Ganslandt’s 4-year-old son, Hunter, the film is meant as a full-immersion plunge into the terrors of escaping one’s homeland through hostile territory. Yet substituting Scandis for Syrians or Africans or Rohingya doesn’t increase empathy, it just smacks of “white lives matter.” While that surely isn’t the director’s goal, it’s hard to get beyond this unwanted consequence.
His timing also isn’t great: Could these be the Nordic refugees Trump wants to welcome? It’s especially unclear who “Jimmie” is meant to target, since its arthouse stylings — oblique angles, minimal dialogue, handheld camera — will be appreciated by only festival-goers presumably more informed (and empathetic) than most to the ongoing emergency. The jury is out as to whether programmers will be willing to put these concerns aside and include what’s unquestionably a well-made, well-meaning film in their line-up.
Ganslandt (“Blondie,” “The Ape”) designed the film to reproduce the sense of disorientation a child would feel in such a situation, shielded as much as possible by adults but still aware of the chaos that surrounds him. By keeping the camera (wielded by DP and sometime director Måns Månsson) on Jimmie as much as possible, audiences are bound to feel a desire to protect him. Take the first shot, with the tyke alone bobbing at sea, falteringly calling out “Papa!” Månsson’s use of shallow focus, making everything in the background blurred and uncertain, heightens the sensation, especially when combined with editing that plays with temporal shifts and perpetuates the feeling of everything being off-kilter.
No explanations are given as to why these people have been forced to leave their homes: By shifts in language (Swedish, German, Croatian), we roughly know where they are, but not why Jimmie, his father (played by the director) and other fleeing Swedes are being hounded out of their country and unwelcome everywhere else. When Jimmie and his dad are separated while hiding in a field of tall grasses, the boy is looked after by another father (Christopher Wagelin) also trying to get his family to safety.
Jimmie and the other refugees journey across the sea and over plains. They rest warily in a garbage site, get verbally tormented by German youth (nothing stereotyped there!), find temporary shelter in a blue-tented refugee camp, and are terrorized while escaping gunfire and explosions. Keeping it all nonspecific allows Ganslandt to maintain a constant level of uncertainty and, one supposes, a sense of universality, yet we never feel a connection with these people because we’re not allowed to properly know them. Sure, the bond between father and son draws out an emotional response, and it’s heart-rending watching this poor kid witness so much trauma that he’s unable to process. Yet these people could just as well be the humans escaping from the Planet of the Apes.
The decision to frequently show the boy obliquely or from behind allows the director to ensure his actor-son doesn’t feel oppressed by the camera’s proximity, but the inability to fix our gaze squarely on Jimmie for any length of time also keeps the character at arm’s length from the generic feelings of sympathy we inevitably have for a child in distress. Visuals seem heavily indebted to the stylings of Emmanuel Lubezki in his recent films for Terrence Malick (though not quite so beautiful); Månsson keeps his camera tensely hovering around Jimmie, while shifts of editing and Ganslandt’s voice-over also appear inspired by the same body of work.