A coming-of-age tale with enough charm to coast over moments of predictability, “That Special Summer” has a generic English-language title but a high-wattage lead in child thesp Mia Saarinen. Set in 1984, pic takes the old trope of a summer holiday to chart the inevitable, adding a special twist by focusing on Finnish families living in Sweden. Semi-autobiographical first feature by writer-director Nanna Huolman ties everything up in too neat a bow but personalities come through and the package is brightly lensed. Local returns were disappointing, though fests specializing in teen fare should take note.
Headstrong pubescent Kirsi (Saarinen), known as Kid, has assimilated perfectly into school life in Gothenburg, but widowed mom, Ester (Milka Ahlroth), lives in a Finnish cocoon, shutting out the world around her. Tensions between mother and daughter are already high when monolingual Ester gets fired as school janitor, and Kid wins a junior reporter contest to broadcast on local radio. Ester has decided they’ll spend the summer in Finland, crushing Kid’s radio career before it even starts.
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What Kid doesn’t know is that mom is contemplating a permanent move back to Finland for them both. Together with sassy old friend Sirkka (Mari Rantasila) and her son, Jamppe (Jim Rautiainen), the two single-mom families drive to Ester’s summer cottage. The reluctant Kid uses a stolen tape recorder to interview fellow Finns and wickedly parody their stereotypes.
Since the cottage is on the path of that summer’s speed rally, Ester decides to start a pizza joint at home, with the help of Sirkka’s brother, Markku (Timo Tuominen), a former racing champ and Ester’s old beau. Scenes of the long-depressed Ester laughing again with Markku increase Kid’s feelings of being a thorn in her mother’s side, and not even ally Jamppe will be able to get her through the summer without some major acting out.
With a sharp ear for pre-teen angst and swagger, helmer Huolman believably captures Kid’s painful position on the threshold of young womanhood, in many ways more mature than the slightly older Jamppe but still a child.
Pic is unquestionably carried by the charismatic Saarinen, a terrific actress with a thorough understanding of her character plus a smile that lights up the screen. Too bad the climactic flare-up ends on an unbelievably perfect note: a little ambiguity would have set the film apart from the scores of other coming-of-agers.
Period is signaled but unforced. Colors have an appropriately ’80s feel, and Rauno Ronkainen’s lensing allows plenty of northern summer sunlight to shine on Kid’s discoveries of self.