Based on an award-winning 1992 Icelandic children’s book, “Benjamin Dove” is a powerful, complex, deftly realized nostalgia piece. Beyond solid Scandi-territory theatrical and Eurotube prospects, pic could lend itself to English-language remaking — though the eventually tragic story might provide meat too strong for auds accustomed to more sugar-coated family fare.
Pic is set during one summer when kid protags are mostly about 12 years old (period ambience is soft-pedaled). In a middle-class neighborhood, three boys spend most of their vacation time playing together — Benjamin (who narrates film as an adult), chunky and temperamental Andres, and younger Baldur, whom Andres too often picks on. Chance crosses their path with a new friend, the well-traveled and bright Roland, whose parents have just moved into town.
Major foe is Helgi, a teenage delinquent type. When Roland dares to fight back. Helgi (in an episode rather more extreme than necessary) douses the newcomer’s trousers with lighter fluid and sets him ablaze, as the others helplessly stand by. Elderly widow Guolaug intervenes in the nick, chasing Helgi away with her broom; he retaliates by killing her pet cat.
It’s Roland’s idea that the children form “The Order of the Red Dragon,” adopting makeshift medieval-knight regalia. Thus “armed,” full of crusading purpose, they exact a humiliating (if harmless) revenge on their nemesis.
Thankfully, this discomfiting youngsters-vs.-sadistic-bully theme is soon abandoned. When Guolaug’s house catches fire, sullen, resentful Helgi would seem the culprit; yet he braves flames to save her, incurring serious burns as a result. While both are hospitalized, matron and friendless teen develop a supportive bond he sorely lacks at home. Simultaneously, the younger boys mount a door-to-door fundraising campaign so Guolaug’s cherished independence, and manse, can be rebuilt.
This triumph gnaws at Andres, whose own bullying (fostered by another neglectful, abusive parental setup) has resulted in expulsion from the Order. He joins up with “bad” kids whose copycat “Black Feather” knight-circle aims only to trounce rival gangs. When little Baldur is abducted by them, the stage is set for combat — and accidental disaster.
Script and direction haven’t worked out all the kinks in this elaborate story. While role of various parents in each child’s psychological health is deftly etched overall, some need a bit more clarifying. Baldur’s dream-haunting unicorn comes off a rather murky symbol; the device of framing narrative in grown-up Benjamin’s recall (with occasional visual cues via “home movie” footage) seems superfluous until a lovely, bittersweet coda.
Climax demands some disbelief-suspension, since we can’t quite figure why the kindly proprietor of a seaside junkyard (which provides the Order’s secret headquarters) would be operating his crane rig “in the middle of the night,” to tragic result.
Despite those minor lapses, pic is engrossing throughout, with sure handling of both light-hearted and suspense elements by helmer Gisli Snaer Erlingsson (“The White Cliff,” “Behind Schedule”). Juvenile perfs are faultless, adults thesps solid if far less central. Warm, handsome lensing coloration tops a glossy tech package.