After the sudden death of her mother, an introverted teenager is taken in by an estranged female relative, who turns out to be the matriarch of a dangerous criminal family. If the essential logline of Danish director Jeanette Nordahl’s quietly tense debut “Wildland” sounds more than a little familiar, perhaps the same thought occurred to those who titled it for the international market: Though it goes by “Kød & Blod (Flesh and Blood)” at home, its English-language moniker is all but a synonym for David Michôd’s similarly premised “Animal Kingdom.” That’s not a bad film to resemble in any capacity, though Nordahl’s study of a frail adolescent psyche plunged into a corrupt household has its own sense of ticking dread.
That’s thanks in large part to a key difference from the 2010 film: the protagonist is a girl, 17-year-old Ida, whose desires and vulnerabilities shift the stakes of this hothouse drama. She’s played with terse, tightly wound intelligence by another newcomer, Sandra Guldberg Kampp, who has something of the young Scarlett Johansson about her; it’s hard to imagine Danish casting directors not making further use of her simmering presence. Still, the star attraction here, and the name that will draw international distributors’ attention to an otherwise low-key Berlinale premiere, is the reliably compelling Sidse Babett Knudsen. As the smilingly ruthless den mother to three variously unhinged male thugs, exuding equal parts soccer mom and brothel madam energy, the “Borgen” star is the one who pulls your gaze in any given scene — even if Ingeborg Topsøe’s brisk but slightly cautious script never quite lets her blaze.
Topsøe also co-wrote 2017’s impressive immigrant character study “The Charmer,” and on the evidence of her two feature credits thus far, has a neat line in chilly, queasy psychodrama that counts on its viewers to intuit the rage beneath serene faces and surfaces. Nordahl’s filmmaking, in turn, is measured and sometimes abruptly fractured, from its eerie opening shot of an upturned car, followed by a fragmented montage of hospital-gurney closeups: Ida’s mother Hanne has been killed in a car crash, handing the youngster an internalized burden of grief and guilt from the very beginning. “For some people, things go wrong before they even begin,” she observes in a bookending voiceover — a truism that could apply to multiple people in this grimy family tragedy.
When Hanne’s sister Bodil (Knudsen) volunteers to be Ida’s new guardian, despite not having seen her niece since infancy, all seems well enough. Though she never addresses the sisters’ rift, single mother Bodil is cheery and affectionate, with a bright, comfortable family home in the Danish suburbs, and three teen-to-adult sons who form a close-knit family unit, if not an especially functional one. Middle son David (Elliott Crosset Hove, so good in 2017’s “Winter Brothers”) is an addict prone to frequent disappearances, while his younger brother Mads (Besir Zeciri) is an infantilized video-game junkie. Eldest brother Jonas (Joachim Fjelstrup) rules over them with calm authority, while Bodil dotes on him and his baby daughter — though it’s telling what an afterthought Jonas’ wife Marie (Sofie Torp) appears to be in this household.
There’s room for only one queen bee in this hive, of course, though Bodil entrusts her boys with all the dirty work in the family business: a criminal debt-collection racket, the violent methods of which surely and swiftly go awry before Ida’s eyes. If the situation escalates and unravels in much the manner you’d expect, Nordahl and Topsøe find more shivery tensions in the emotional blackmail that ensues between family members, and in Ida’s ambiguous position in (and on) proceedings: Is she simply horrified by the brutal misdeeds that evidently drove her mother away, or is she, in her lonely, disaffected state, perversely intrigued by the possibilities? Guldberg Kampp’s watchful performance plays both possibilities without falling back on vague inscrutability, while Knudsen’s delivery — all cool, unruffled, slightly blood-stained silk — is the perfect foil to her timorousness.
Rather like the actors, David Gallego’s handsomely muted lensing seeks sinister notes in placid veneers. This is a story of a human darkness that largely unfolds in soft Scandinavian daylight, affording Ida few physical or emotional hiding places. It’s left to a ringingly atonal electronic score by experimental artist Puce Mary (aka Frederikke Hoffmeier) to foreground the narrative’s underlying chaos at key moments of crisis; at its subtlest, it just reverberates in the background like musical tinnitus.
Crisply shaped and cut at 88 minutes, “Wildland” could stand to be more emphatic and expansive on certain points: The possibility of a deeper connection between Ida and David’s mistreated girlfriend Anna (Carla Philip Røder), in particular, hovers teasingly in the script’s margins. Nordahl’s promising debut is most generic when centered on criminal fraternity; it’s when two or more female perspectives come to the fore that the film carves out its place in the wild.