Icelandic helmer Fridrik Thor Fridriksson’s most lushly produced and commercial work for some time, “Niceland” is an excessively sugary tale that will induce hyperglycemic shock in flintier-hearted viewers. Whimsical fairy tale about nice, mentally challenged characters discovering the meaning of life may charm some of the director’s loyal fans, even with its uncharacteristically upbeat conclusion, and may even win some new converts, given its all-English dialogue. However, further fest play and wider distribution will partly depend on whether critics don’t roast it first.
Fridriksson’s boldest stroke is to set contempo story in a Neverland town, Niceland (pop. 1,000,002), that looks Nordic in light and decor but sounds Scottish, given most of the main cast hail from north of Hadrian’s Wall. Not entirely successful result creates a fey, alternative world through a mix of sets and location work in Iceland and Germany.
Although central lovers Jed (Martin Compston, from “Sweet Sixteen”) and Chloe (Gudrun Bjarnadottir, from “101 Reykjavik”) are described as mentally handicapped in the film’s press notes, they come across more as none-too-bright, simple-hearted kids. Both work in a warehouse alongside their friends, most of whom also happen to be handicapped, such as Alex, played with fine comic timing by real Down Syndrome youngster Timmy Lang.
On the night he proposes marriage, Jed accidentally lets Chloe’s beloved cat get killed by a car, and she sinks into a life-threatening depression. Determined to help her find another purpose in life — though another cat might have been simpler — Jed becomes convinced curmudgeonly scrap-dealer Max (Gary Lewis) has the answer when he hears him taking on TV.
Thinking Max a reluctant guru, Jed moves into the cluttered breaking-yard where Max lives and “sells” spare hubcaps. (In fact, he just moves them from one wheel to the next without anyone noticing, one of pic’s funnier jokes.) Jed’s parents, TV salesman John (Peter Capaldi) and Mary (Kiwi actress Kerry Fox, reviving her Scottish accent from “Shallow Grave”), blithely let him go.
Meanwhile, morose Max has his own obsession watching a pretty young florist named Sandra (Shauna Macdonald). His fairly obvious backstory is revealed in a trite last-act monologue that thesp Lewis manages to pull off with dignity.
Indeed, the perfs by Lewis and Compston, both Ken Loach veterans, turn out to be pic’s saving grace, along with stand-up turns from the rest of the cast. A former junior-league soccer player turned actor, Compston brings to only his third film a pro polish, getting across Jed’s puppyish sweetness without being cloying or annoying. On the tech side, pic is shot with chocolate-box prettiness by Danish d.p. Morten Soborg.
However, there’s no getting ’round the fact “Niceland” openly peddles one of cinema’s most patronizing inventions, the myth of mentally handicapped people as holy fools spouting wisdom and funny quips. In press notes, Fridriksson says he was partly motivated to accept the helming gig from a desire to pay tribute to a 19-year-old brother-in-law who had Down Syndrome and died recently. Such sincerity may be laudable but the treatment of the condition (never mentioned by name in the movie) is still cliched and mawkish in a way that the helmer’s previous film about mental illness, the asylum-set “Angels of the Universe,” managed mostly to avoid.
Fridriksson aficionados will notice “Niceland” is basically a variation on his usual set-up whereby a stranger (Masatoshi Nagase in “Cold Fever,” Keith Carradine in the recent “Falcons”) is cast adrift in a strange, but recognizable Iceland. Here, Jed’s character is likewise on a quest of sorts; but whereas his condition would make him an outsider in most movies, in this parallel universe it’s the hermit-like Max, straight out of a Brit-realist drama, who’s the outcast.
Generally tight editing by Sigvaldi J. Karason and Anders Refn keeps running time blessedly short. Given that, and the air of Afterschool Special wholesomeness, pic might be more effectively marketed as a kid flick than as the adult fare its poster and marketing campaign suggest.