Though it retains the narrative complexity of the Swedish bestseller on which it’s based, WWII saga “Simon and the Oaks” never creates an emotional or intellectual throughline of its own. Using a convoluted coming-of-age framework, director Lisa Ohlin examines the precarious situation of Jews in Sweden, surrounded by Nazi-occupied countries and facing strong anti-Semitism at home. Despite the film’s old-fashioned aesthetic and borrowed symbolism, its affecting perfs and Holocaust theme could spell healthy Stateside B.O. Pic is already an international hit, and garnered a record 13 Swedish Academy Award nominations last year.
It’s 1939, and sensitive young Simon (Jonatan S. Wachter) already seems a changeling in his own rustic household. Reluctant to fight or hunt, Simon spends all his time in a huge oak tree, reading about faraway lands and seeing camels in the clouds. Prevailing upon his supportive mother, Karin (Helen Sjoholm, in a movie-stealing perf), and his reluctant, uncomprehending father, Erik (Stefan Godicke), he transfers to an upscale school. There, he befriends Isak (Karl Martin Eriksson), a Jew whose parents escaped Germany; Simon protects his new pal from older, bullying, anti-Semitic classmates.
The sight of visiting Nazis in town triggers traumatic memories in Isak, who finds refuge in Simon’s family, bonding closely with Erik; similarly, Simon finds a kindred soul in Isak’s father, Ruben (Jan Josef Liefers, excellent), a rich bookseller who introduces him to new worlds of art and music. This familial cross-transference is further complicated by the growing attraction between Simon’s mother and Isak’s father.
Once Simon experiences highbrow culture, he turns against his oak tree’s simple beauties and tears down his treehouse, the tree reacting in windswept fury until Simon hurls a stone against it. Helmer Ohlin handles this scene, and indeed most of the film’s emotional high points, with sensitivity and imagination. Unfortunately, these qualities rarely extend to the sweep and momentum of the film as a whole. For those familiar with Marianne Fredriksson’s hugely popular novel, the successful visualizations of its most memorable moments no doubt suffice to carry the rest.
Jumping from the beginning of the war to its conclusion and beyond, the film finds Simon now a young man (Bill Skarsgard, son of Stellan) discovering the secret of his Jewish heritage, which triggers adolescent anger against his Swedish family and sends him in search of his German-Jewish roots. An off-putting, S&M-tinged sexual encounter with concentration-camp survivor Iza (Katharina Schuttler) and a more conventional relationship with red-haired intellectual Klara (Erica Lofgren) fail to fully register as a sentimental education, or to place Simon’s teenage callousness in context. Moreover, the gulf between the somewhat sympathetic young Simon and his impatient, judgmental older self proves too great to generate any identification with the protag.
The film’s vivid landscapes (lensed by Dan Laustsen) and frequent slow dissolves, along with Annette Focks’ lushly swelling score, feel nostalgically attuned to the period evoked.