“What’s Bruce Lee’s favorite drink?”
A very intimate portrait into the life of a young man lost amidst a foreign culture, J. Erik Reese‘s Train to Stockholm is an emotionally naked work composed of the crossed signals and false starts lining everyone’s path towards personal identity. We’re the product of our environment, upbringing, and curiosity—forever changing as adventures, relationships, and time progress. Some keep a practical head by orientating their lives along a series of successive goals while others break free from the mold to explore the unknown. It’s through bittersweet memories of fleeting joy and the excruciating pain of actions gone awry that we comprehend happiness and love. But, when laying ourselves bare to possess them results in devastation, can we find the strength to remember why we blindly took the risk? Just because the road ended in sorrow doesn’t erase the love chased along the way.
While details as to what brought Swedish-born and American-raised Jonas (Mikael Ayele) to his home country are sprinkled throughout, knowing the premise of the film beforehand does help infer upon its unfolding events. What isn’t explicitly explained is that the twenty-one year old ‘part-time student/full-time photographer’ is visiting the Scandinavian nation for a year-long exchange program at the University of Uppsala. Despite being fluent in the language, Jonas’ arrival is still burdened by the isolation inherent in his being a stranger. Desperately trying to make friends and allow his over-exuberant nature to flow freely, we quickly see how cold this new land appears to him. Social misinterpretations add to his detachment and a violent encounter on the street leaves him utterly defeated. Rather than open arms from an international pool of kindred spirits, all Jonas found was a closed-off populace and the threat of a knife’s blade.
Once the opening title treatment fades atop footage of a speeding train, however, we catch a glimpse of hope. Heading to Stockholm, Jonas and his camera happen across a young girl sitting by a window. Effusive, corny, and unable to take “No” for an answer, he interjects his way into her quiet trip by earning a smile. A foreign student from Iceland, Em (Sonja Ghaderi) cautiously lets his extroverted joker in as they talk and realize they have a mutual acquaintance (Anya Tkachenco‘s Charlie). Agreeing to maybe hang out after her class, we catch a palpable connection begging for exploration despite an unknown secret made visible through the girl’s obvious trepidation. But as the two partake in excursions around the city with a fun, almost romantic lilt, we wonder if maybe they’ve willfully stumbled upon an escape from whatever troubles their lives have brought them up until now.
Where Train to Stockholm falters is in its introduction of its third lead, Magnus (Anders Hörbo). Brought in through scenes cut against Jonas and Em’s growing friendship, we know his inclusion has relevance to the story but can’t yet appreciate him as more than an annoyance at the start. Watching him fail to declare love for a study partner, his scenes appear out-of-place and hinder us from truly enjoying the juxtaposition of his inability to win over a friendly girl with Jonas relative ease. Magnus’ introverted, nose-in-a-book mentality is in stark contrast to the American’s outgoing nature, but it’s difficult to notice before they collide in one of the film’s finest moments of awkwardly mixed signals. Perhaps it’s a testament to how well Ayele and Ghaderi work together in constructing their complicated relationship—my interest in their evolution simply made Magnus’s story expendable until it began to infer upon it.
Co-written by Daniel J. Carmody, one can recognize the film as a cathartic journey for Reese. Experiencing the same sort of alienation on his own sojourn studying abroad in Sweden, the writer/director created this story as a way to help express his own disconnect and desire for acceptance. By shooting hand-held and in close-up, there is an intimacy at play as the camera organically pans between actors rather than crosscut reactions. The maneuver catches each authentic performance steeped in an unchecked emotion Reese must know all too well. And between the flirtatious conversations of two young people feeling out each other’s motives comes some gorgeous location shots of architecture and landscape that obviously left an impression on the director. With an excess of reflective surfaces and a bunch of narrow walkways, each frame is carefully conceived despite the shaky movements within them.
Gunilla Willis‘ endearingly sweet neighbor and a volatile Jores Sinani as a thief who bookends the tale and almost provides our lead with the justification to give up completely on life, love, and happiness add depth to the story as our main trio work towards their inevitable collision. Getting better as each minute ticks away, Train to Stockholm is at its best when all secrets are revealed to prove its been as much Em’s search for happiness as Jonas’. Comparable to Once in tone with its cautious love composed by varying degrees of reciprocation, there is something special to Ayele’s affable stranger and Ghaderi’s unsure companion. We want them to be together despite knowing the bittersweet truth it’s probably not in the cards. Hopefully the laughter shared can at least be a consolation for Jonas, though, letting his ill-fated attempts at normalcy abroad remain an experience he can cherish.
courtesy of the director