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Sundance Film Review: ‘Stockholm, Pennsylvania’

Compressed from its original form as a stage play, this study of a kidnapping victim struggling to adjust to her birth family feels too claustrophobic for comfort.

Sundance Film Festival Stockholm, Pennsylvania
Courtesy Sundance

Austere and unnerving, Nikole Beckwith’s stir-crazy “Stockholm, Pennsylvania” picks up where most kidnapping thrillers leave off: the moment the victim is returned home to her parents. Everyone in town sees the reunion as a happy ending, but Beckwith senses otherwise, delving into the painfully drawn-out process of trying to rebuild bonds both sides had 17 years to forget. While such a sensitive psychological approach has the potential to delve deep, the treatment lacks the dramatic thrill of a traditional endangerment story, offering rich parts for Saoirse Ronan and Cynthia Nixon, but precious little access to their inner thoughts — and less to grab the attention of general audiences.

Ronan has it especially tough, playing a character who has spent the better part of her childhood living in a disturbed man’s basement. Seen almost exclusively through the traumatized girl’s eyes, her almost benevolently portrayed captor, Ben McKay (Jason Isaacs), stole her from a playground when she was only 4, spinning all sorts of strange stories to discourage her curiosity in the outside world and maintain control.

Born Leann Louise Dargon, the stolen child wasn’t so much home-schooled as brainwashed (like the sci-fi wild child featured in Rolf de Heer’s 1993 curiosity “Bad Boy Bubby”), led to believe that the above-ground world had been destroyed in her absence. In a way, it had. By depriving her of a proper education, Ben made it virtually impossible for her to function once her captivity ended. He gave her a new name, a new birthday and a new home — all of which feel more real to her now than those awaiting her now that Ben’s behind bars.

In her mind, Leann still thinks of herself as Leia — “like the princess from the story,” she says, not even realizing which story Ben had in mind. (Imagine living in a world without “Star Wars,” to say nothing of MTV, magazines, 9/11 and all the other formative influences on her generation.) Leia’s parents, the Dargons, are strangers to her, while her bond to Ben remains strong — an obvious symptom of Stockholm syndrome, the lingering-attachment phenomenon that lends the film its title, though its focus seems more specifically directed at the challenges of reacclimating someone raised apart from societal influences.

Beckwith originally intended the project for the stage, then reconceived it as her film directing debut, earning recognition from the Nicholl Fellowship, the Black List and the Sundance Labs along the way. Instead of opening it up for the screen, however, she has deliberately made it even more claustrophobic than a theatrical version could be. From its opening scene, the film feels desaturated and airless, as if the intrusion of energy or color might upset the characters’ delicate task of healing.

Drably attired in beige, Leia’s moth-like mother, Marcy (Nixon), is realistic about the amount of effort it will take to reintegrate her daughter into the family, while her stoic husband, Glen (David Warshofsky), distracts himself with work, looking forward to the moment when they can go back to being normal. But there’s no such thing as normal for Leia.

“How can you have feelings when you don’t know anything about it?” she asks the child psychologist (Rosalind Chao) assigned to her case. Internally, Leia is overwhelmed, but on the surface, she’s inscrutable, which requires that audiences project their own interpretation of what she’s going through onto the character — one who seems older than the story calls for, probably because Beckwith insisted on Ronan, even if the part denies her the chance to let her inner turmoil show.

Clearly, Leia has no sense of the outside world, which makes it possible for Marcy to keep her more or less confined during the tricky period of readjustment. For the Dargons, the wounds of that initial disappearance run deep, driving a wedge between husband and wife that ultimately leads to a dramatic unraveling in the film’s second half — one that brings a fascinating degree of complexity to Nixon’s role, as she tries desperate measures to break through to her long-lost little girl.

At first, Marcy is determined to respect her daughter as a young adult (technically speaking, Leia is old enough to make up her own mind), which makes her hyper-cautious in her approach. Though desperate to reconnect, she doesn’t want to spook Leia, who could run away at any moment — and who does, on several occasions. For the most part, however, the film is confined to Leia’s new “home.” Carrying over certain stage conventions, Beckwith constructs this primary set as a somber, suffocating space — a sort of conceptual prison, virtually devoid of laughter or music, using dramatic lighting shifts to contrast Leia’s present living conditions with flashbacks to her time with Ben.

By the end, both Leia and the audience are desperate to break out of this oppressive space, though the script offers no sense of urgency to the family’s protracted reconciliation project — no doubt a conscious choice, considering how easy it might have been for Beckwith to generate suspense, had she decided to leave Ben at large, or to exploit the danger of Leia’s time away from her parents. Instead, she lets the subtext simmer far too long, then springs a chilling, “Twilight Zone”-style final twist.

Sundance Film Review: ‘Stockholm, Pennsylvania’

Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (competing), Jan. 23, 2015. Running time: <strong>101 MIN.</strong>

  • Production: A Fido Features production, in association with Olympus Pictures. Produced by Greg Ammon, Leslie Urdang, Dan Halsted. Executive producer, Paul Marini. Co-producers, Geoff Linville, Anthony Brandonisio, Mandy Beckner.
  • Crew: Directed, written by Nikole Beckwith. Camera (color), Arnaud Potier; editor, Joe Klotz; music, Nora Kroll-Rosenbaum, Brian McOmber; production designer, Kathrin Eder; set decorator, Lisa Son; costume designer, Emily Batson; sound, Amanda Beggs; supervising sound editor, Tom Paul; re-recording mixer, Paul; visual effects, Neal Jonas; special effects coordinator, Rudy Perez; stunt coordinator, Gaelle Cohen; assistant director, Stephanie Galvan; casting, Richard Hicks.
  • With: Saoirse Ronan, Cynthia Nixon, Jason Isaacs, David Warshofsky, Rosalind Chao, Avery Phillips, Hana Hayes, Tom Wright.
  • Music By: