There are more synthetic fibers than you can shake a stick — or a lit match — at in “Speed Walking,” but a pure heart beats beneath the gaudy ’70s surface of Danish director Niels Arden Oplev’s semi-sweet coming-of-age comedy. Tenderly tracking the tentative sexual inquiries of a 13-year-old boy living under the cloud of his mother’s death, Oplev’s film borrows perhaps a shade too liberally from the Nordic humanism of Lukas Moodysson, but still represents a better use of the original “Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” helmer’s time than last year’s mangy U.S. thriller “Dead Man Down.” With a pleasingly mature dose of polysexuality spiking the polyester nostalgia, “Speed Walking” is proving a crowdpleaser on the fest circuit, and should cut a swift path to international distribution.
With Oplev having recently signed on for a couple of American assignments, including the USA drama pilot “Mr. Robot,” “Speed Walking” is far from a permanent homecoming for the director. Indeed, this kind of character-driven, non-genre project looks to be the exception rather than the norm as his transcontinental career progresses. For viewers unfamiliar with the helmer’s pre-“Dragon Tattoo” output, the film may seem positively revelatory, though its wistful sentimentality and bright child’s-eye perspective align it with his 2006 festival hit, “We Shall Overcome.” Further enhancing its international marketability, meanwhile, is an ensemble speckled with Danish thesps now enjoying crossover careers of their own — “Borgen” star Sidse Babett Knudsen most prominent among them.
Front and center, however, is mop-topped first-timer Villads Boye, who brings an appealing, slightly stern naivete to the role of Martin, the kind of sensitive, sensible adolescent who methodically manages the seating arrangements for his upcoming confirmation party. He is introduced on the day of his mother’s sudden, cancer-related passing — a tragedy signified before the news even reaches him by the town’s collective lowering of their flags to half-mast, plus a radio chorus of Nazareth’s soft-rock weeper “Love Hurts” in the streets. (If an onscreen title card hadn’t already established that the year is 1976, auds would hardly be in doubt.)
That’s the kind of cozily protected world Martin lives in, and Bo Hr. Hansen’s script (adapted from Morten Kirkskov’s novel) wrings much humor — some of it wry, some of it sitcom-level — from the mixed blessing of a community where everyone’s business is everyone else’s. Kindly, ditzy neighbor Lizzie (Knudsen, enjoying herself under an unflattering peroxide job and ruddy running gag of a tan) looks in on the grieving family, as do various other well-wishers. Yet it’s Martin who appoints himself chiefly responsible for pulling his stricken household together, as his clueless dad (an excellent Anders W. Berthelsen) and sullen older brother (Jens Malthe Naesby) remain petrified by grief.
It’s as a coping mechanism, then, that Martin plays down his mourning process and concentrates more intently on his budding libido. That’s far from a simple distraction, however: His teasingly reciprocated feelings for sweet-natured classmate Kristine (Kraka Donslund Nielsen, in a thoroughly winning debut) are complicated by his ongoing sexual banter with his male best friend, Kim (Frederik Winther Rasmussen), which gradually crosses the line from boys-will-be-boys horseplay into something more intimately charged.
Aided by Oplev’s commendably gentle direction of his excellent young leads, “Speed Walking” is most notable for its delicately candid depiction of the earliest, most malleable stage of teen sexuality, where all options are open and every kiss is its own learning curve. The town, for its part, has partially surrendered to the sexual revolution of the decade, though the liberation is still unequal: While Martin’s dad doesn’t mind sharing certain awkward sexual confessions with his sons, homosexuality is only tacitly accepted. (Martin guilelessly buys the family line that his gay uncle Kristian, played by Pilou Asbaek, lives with another man “because of the housing shortage in Copenhagen.”) Meanwhile, Kristine’s shrugging acceptance of the pill because “boys hate rubbers” situates the film firmly in the pre-AIDS era.
Those troublesome sexual politics, presented largely without comment, lend purpose to the film’s period setting beyond the cosmetic. Nevertheless, production designer Rie Lykke and costume designers Pia Myrdal and Anne-Dorte Eskildsen have plenty of fun with the era’s nipple-high waistlines, faded Marimekko-style prints and vegetable-soup wallpaper, while Rasmus Videbaek’s camera caresses such details with blunted, Polaroid-style lighting. Finally, the film’s title — which refers to the amusingly dated school sport in which Martin proudly excels — also serves as an apt description of Anne Osterud’s nimble but casually paced editing.