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Film Review: ‘Blind Spot’

Following a family tragedy in real time, Tuva Novotny's debut feature brings riveting emotional purpose to its impressive one-take technique.

Tuva Novotny
Pia Tjelta, Oddgeir Thune, Anders Baasmo Christiansen, Nora Mathea Øien

1 hour 42 minutes

There are moments of life-and-death crisis in which time simultaneously stops and stretches, becomes both immaterial and absolutely of the essence, and few spaces do more to blur it than a hospital — where lives end, begin and are drastically altered in seconds that pass like centuries. In her wrenching debut feature “Blind Spot,” Swedish actress-turned-filmmaker Tuva Novotny nails that panicked, indefinably elastic form of time, making expert use of a potentially gimmicky technical device to do so. Shot in real time in a single, appropriately exhausting take, Novotny’s film follows an Oslo family plunged into a severe emotional hellscape when a seemingly well-adjusted teenage girl jumps from a fourth-storey window, forcing them (and us) to unpack an inexplicable tragedy with nary a spare moment to breathe.

Narratively speaking, what happens in “Blind Spot” might have filled a single arc of an “ER” episode back in the day. What makes the film unshakeable is its sheer physical and psychological relentlessness of execution; a small, if deeply sad, story becomes all-consuming when no respite or interruption is offered from its overlapping stages of shock and sorrow. While “Blind Spot” trades in a very different brand of adrenaline from “Victoria,” German helmer Sebastian Schipper’s dazzling one-shot rush from 2015, Novotny and her athletic d.p. Jonas Alarik deserve similar credit for their headlong audience-immersion technique. But it’s actress Pia Tjelta’s astonishing, all-the-way performance, as a parent positively possessed by hysteria in a live worst case scenario, that keeps this from feeling like an expert technical exercise: Rightly rewarded by the San Sebastian jury, she gives the film its heart before tearing out its guts.

Such high-pitched dramatics could hardly be anticipated from the film’s deliberately dawdling first quarter-hour, though something feels subtly off from the outset. We open on a high school girls’ handball game, before following the players into the locker room; amid the post-match chatter, two girls seem a little frozen out, a little more vulnerable than the rest. Diminutive Thea (Nora Mathea Øien) and her best friend Anna (Ellen Heyerdahl Janzon) change quickly and head off together, carrying on an innocuous conversation flecked with signals of adolescent insecurity and unrest: They’re bothered by their peers’ fixation on makeup and boys, in particular. The camera follows their walk home in a sustained tracking shot that sets up a prowling sense of dread: We can’t help feeling the presence of a threat — be it a motorist or a predatory male — lurking just out of shot, in the unseen space of the title.

We’re right to be uneasy, though it turns out the blind spot isn’t a physical one. Thea arrives safely home, and after fixing herself a sandwich, jotting something down in her diary and pleasantly greeting her mother Maria (Tjelta), throws herself unceremoniously from her bedroom window. We don’t see the act. Alarik’s roving lens lands instead on Maria’s face — first perplexed, then stricken, then crumpled — as she realizes what has happened and bolts outside to find Thea’s living but shattered body on the grass. The few minutes that ensue are the film’s longest and most agonizing: When in life, after all, has an ambulance ever arrived too quickly?

In this short eternity, Maria breaks down into complete, frenzied incoherence, depicted by Tjelta with frightening credibility — nearly as draining to watch as it must have been to perform. It’s a state of shock that endures, with glitches of lucidity, in the hospital corridors, where Thea is whisked off to the trauma unit, while an exceptionally sensitive nurse Martin (Oddgeir Thune, superb) does his best to manage Maria’s collapse. From this point, “Blind Spot’s” storytelling is itself left in waiting-room limbo, preoccupied less with Thea’s unavoidably bleak prognosis than with unpicking the mystery of her near-suicide.

A stray detail spotted by Martin on the girl’s medical record opens a tragic chapter of family history that may or may not account for her actions; as the film ponders the ambiguities of mental health and the pitfalls inherent in diagnosing it, that title takes on additional, disquieting resonance. Each mini-revelation in this inquiry frays and complicates Maria’s own ragged mental state, as she works through farther-reaching feelings of guilt and uncertainty while buzzing with in-the-moment terror and preemptive grief. It’s an emotional wash cycle that becomes the driving force of the film, with that unedited, unblinking camerawork permitting no skipped stages.

“Blind Spot” isn’t a mere showcase for histrionics, however. Later, in a taxi ride dimly lit by the hot reds and ambers of nighttime traffic, Tjelta’s performance, and Novotny’s intimate scrutiny thereof, reach quiet apotheosis. Calmer but still uncertain of her daughter’s fate, Maria’s shadowed face is finally permitted space and time to brood; dawning possibilities crack and crease her tear-sodden skin in real time. As a practical feat, “Blind Spot’s” single shot could hardly be more acrobatically orchestrated and choreographed. But it’s in this comparatively simple, close setup, where the trials of the last hour or so perceptibly accumulate on the shared face of character and actor, that the film’s continuous motion pays off most viscerally.

Film Review: 'Blind Spot'

Reviewed at San Sebastian Film Festival (competing), Sept. 28, 2018. (In Toronto Film Festival — Discovery.) Running time: 102 MIN.

Production: (Norway) A Nordisk Film production. (International sales: TurstNordisk, Copenhagen.) Producer: Elisabeth Kvithyll. Executive producers: Aage Aaberge, Henrik Zein. Co-producers: Rene Ezra, Matilda Appelin.

Crew: Director, screenplay: Tuva Novotny. Camera (color): Jonas Alarik. Music: Peter Albrechtsen.

With: Pia Tjelta, Oddgeir Thune, Anders Baasmo Christiansen, Nora Mathea Øien, Ellen Heyerdahl Janzon, Per Frisch, Marianne Krogh, Carl Munck, Teodor Barsnes-Simonsen.

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