A struggling Icelandic single mother forms an unlikely bond with a female asylum seeker from Guinea-Bissau in the impressively acted social-realist drama “And Breathe Normally” from debuting helmer-writer Ísold Uggadóttir. Reminiscent of the work of Ken Loach or the Dardenne brothers, it unfolds amid grim, desolate-looking landscapes that supply the antithesis of Iceland’s tourist brochures. Although some might find the twists and turns of the narrative to occasionally defy credibility, others will be swept along with the gripping human dilemmas of the main characters. Further festival action is a given, especially since it includes zeitgeist topics such as poverty, refugees and LGBT issues.
Tough, tattooed Lara (Kristín Thóra Haraldsdóttir) strives to stay a few steps ahead of the debt collector yet still provide cute and uncomplaining kindergartner son Eldar (Patrik Nökkvi Pétursson) with the occasional treat, such as rescue cat Músi. She’s not one to accept the kindness of strangers; when someone else in the grocery line offers to cover the toilet paper she can’t pay for, she just pushes the item out of her pile.
Director-writer Uggadóttir keeps viewers on their toes by subtly providing clues to Lara’s chariness, rather than spelling things out. We learn that her mother lives in Norway, she has not always had custody of her son, that a problem with drugs lies in the past and may resurface and that she has the occasional tryst with the mother of her son’s best friend.
A lifeline for Lara’s financial situation seems to materialize when the border security forces at Keflavík, Iceland’s main airport, offer her a position as a trainee. And it’s there she first crosses paths with Adja (Babetida Sadjo), who is in transit to Canada on a fake French passport. After Lara flags the passport to her trainer, Adja winds up stranded in Iceland, first with a short prison term, then stuck in a run-down refugee center at the rough edges of the Reykjanes peninsula while the government considers her request for asylum.
Meanwhile, money isn’t coming in fast enough for Lara, who, hounded by her landlord, puts her few belongings in storage and convinces Eldar that they are going on a secret adventure that involves sleeping in the car. Although Iceland would certainly provide support for housing and basic needs for a single mother like Lara, her unwillingness to seek or accept formal help leads her to make some unwise decisions. In a scene that hits hard with its straightforward simplicity, Uggadóttir shows mother and son satiating their hunger with chicken kebabs from a grocery store demonstration, reinforcing her message that not all of the needy are willing or able to partake of government services.
When the paths of Lara and Adja cross again, it’s Adja who provides surprising succor, sneaking the mother and son into the refugee center so that they have a place to wash and a bed to sleep in. While this plot point might strain plausibility for some, “This American Life” just reported on the unbelievable chaos and confusion at one small refugee court in Laredo, Texas, so who knows how carefully monitored Iceland’s isolated refugee housing really is.
Just as one starts to predict what the ultimate arc of the screenplay will be, Uggadóttir, a Columbia University MFA graduate known for her prize-winning shorts, throws in a few twists, showing that Adja and Lara have more in common than they would have guessed. What might, in other hands, be melodramatic or emotionally manipulative remains resolutely unsentimental here.
In what is essentially a three-hander, Guinea-born Belgian actress Sadjo impresses with her dignity and warmth. Meanwhile, petite Haraldsdóttir displays such patience and love for her son that she keeps viewers rooting for her to overcome her obstacles despite her occasional bad judgment. And young Pétursson is a delight as the least whiny child ever.
Polish lenser Ita Zbroniec-Zaj, who has done excellent work for Scandinavian helmers such as Måns Månsson, Hanna Sköld and Goran Kapetanovic, provides the standout tech credit here. The turbulent autumn weather and rugged landscapes of Iceland practically become another character. She also visually reinforces the leitmotif of being trapped with images such as the cats at the rescue shelter and stowaways at the harbor, as well as plays of light and shadow throughout. The melancholy score by Gísli Galdur also makes a strong impression.