A tender-hearted coming-of-age story shot in a low-key, realist style, the Finnish drama “Little Wing” centers on a resourceful adolescent raised by an immature single mother who decides to track down her biological father. For her first fiction feature as a director, Selma Vilhunen draws on her documentary background, bringing together the themes of some of her nonfiction work, including “A Day With Dad” and “Pony Girls,” dealing sensitively and intelligently with difficult real-life issues such as bullying, poverty, mental illness, and dysfunctional families, making it a natural for festival programmers and Euro broadcasters.
Twelve years old and small for her age, Varpu (an endearing turn from Linnea Skog) may not be as physically developed as other girls, but she is mature and independent beyond her years. Indeed, it’s her mother Siru (musician Paula Vesala, who also contributes some songs to the soundtrack), who works as a cleaning lady, that behaves in an inappropriately childlike manner: crying when she can’t pass her driver’s test, clambering into her daughter’s bed when she feels sad and lonely and complaining about her life rather than asking Varpu about hers. She can’t even remember her daughter’s birthday.
Varpu rides at a stable on the outskirts of Helsinki, diligently taking the bus to and from her small apartment on the less good side of town. The other girls at the stable come from well-off, two-parent families, and they are starting to needle Varpu with questions such as “Why doesn’t your mother pick you up?” and “What does your father do?” As Varpu calmly weaves made-up stories in reply, it only strengthens her desire to discover more about the man who sired her.
While Siru spends her evening creating an internet dating profile, Varpu manages to wheedle out her father’s name, Ilmari Hakkonen, and the city in which he lives, Oulu in northern Finland. Yearning for a less self-centered parent, Varpu decides to take matters into her own hands one night. Although her means of getting to Oulu requires a certain suspension of disbelief, it fits with a repeated motif of the story.
One of the film’s most poignant moments comes when Varpu meets Ilmari (Lauri Maijala) for the first time. Even though she can act like an adult, it doesn’t mean she has an adult’s understanding of the world. Where she sees an eccentric artist, surrounded by his peculiar and colorful creations, grownup viewers immediately understand that Ilmari is a paranoid schizophrenic. It takes Varpu longer — and an embarrassing disaster during her riding competition — to process this knowledge, but ultimately rather than denying it, she emerges stronger and more at ease.
Vilhunen, an Academy Award nominee for the short film “Do I Have To Take Care Of Everything?” incorporates several less credible twists with a surprising lack of repercussions that work against the realism of her story arc, but the poise of her pint-sized, dimpled heroine makes viewers cut her some slack. And of course one might also ask how, given their financial situation, Varpu can afford the expenses of riding and the requisite gear.
The handsome production package is led by Tuomo Hutri’s intimate widescreen lensing that hones in on the feelings hiding behind Varpu’s clear blue eyes and the frosty look of Finland in autumn. The Finnish title translates as “A Girl Called Varpu.”