REVIEW: Simon och ekarna [Simon & the Oaks] [2011]

Score: 8/10 | ★ ★ ★

Rating: NR | Runtime: 122 minutes | Release Date: December 9th, 2011 (Sweden)
Studio: Film Arcade
Director(s): Lisa Ohlin
Writer(s): Marnie Blok / Oskar Söderlund (developer) / Marianne Fredriksson (novel)

“Children forget so fast”

A tale about family, its many definitions, and its discovery through the prism of an unstable time, Marianne Fredriksson‘s international bestseller Simon och ekarna [Simon & the Oaks] has found its way to the big screen. Epic in scope and yet pared down to the tumultuous emotions of a young man growing up in Sweden during and after World War II, the film spans less than two decades but somehow appears to portray a lifetime. Simon Larsson started as a boy avidly reading within a giant oak tree by the water behind his humble home. His best friend and conduit to a world of imagination, art, and feeling, the tree became a sanctuary from his parents’ hard, blue-collar life. Hoping to escape that future by enrolling in a private school against his father’s wishes, Simon soon discovers the oak merely amplified what was already inside.

It was 1939 when the boy found himself in the midst of one of Earth’s greatest tragedies. Using his father’s troglodyte lessons about a fist best answering bullies, Simon (Jonatan S. Wächter) becomes fast friends with a young Jewish German transplant named Isak Lentov (Karl Martin Eriksson). Born of a different world, the Lentovs arrived to Sweden with money, culture, and fear for the impending Nazi invasion gradually closing in on Scandinavian borders. Owner of a bookshop, it’s no surprise Isak’s father Ruben (Jan Josef Liefers) ends up a sort of idol in Simon’s mind. And when the Nazis do arrive—their presence decimating the last bit of reality Isak’s mother Olga (Lena Nylén) still held—the Lentovs and Larssons come together in a show of neighborly compassion to not tread the unknown horrors alone.

Nominated for thirteen awards at the Swedish equivalent of our Oscars, director Lisa Ohlin and screenwriter Marnie Blok take us through the boys’ mirrored lives in two acts. With hidden secrets revealing themselves and the constant threat tearing them apart at the seams, the return of Simon’s father Erik (Stefan Gödicke) from the army begins a very important shift in the families’ structure. Isak—now living with the Larssons while his mother recovered and father worked—finds Erik’s hands-on approach to carpentry a cathartic way out of his traumatic funk while Simon moves ever closer to the upper crust world of concerts and art Ruben can provide. Sons become aligned with surrogate dads as Karin Larsson (Helen Sjöholm) plays matriarch to all. A rock at the center of their survival, she bridges their societal gap to form a home.

But with the boys older by war’s end in 1945, Simon (now played by Bill Skarsgård) finds himself officially removed from the simple life his parents have given him. Discovering he is an adopted, half-Jew protected by his ignorance in case the Nazis came knocking, the war takes on a new role. No longer the looming horror forever out of reach yet always threatening, Hitler’s terror now becomes the force of nature that rips his entire world apart. As Isak (now Karl Linnertorp) moves on into adulthood, Simon loses himself deeper into the uncertainty of not yet knowing who he is or is capable of being. Desperate to find answers, he will selfishly leave those who loved him behind on this quest towards understanding. Unfortunately, peace doesn’t make him immune to wars’ tragic after effects.

The film is front-to-back the tale of Simon’s journey towards becoming a man. Not alone, however, those surrounding will help shape him via kindness and betrayal. Always caught between two worlds, it is music that sets him free to replace the unexplained mystery his oak tree once gave. A series of images from nature fade in and out with memories of joy and love whenever he’s absorbing the work of classical composers. Something in the sounds reaches deep within him to strip away the pain and suffering while leaving his true self behind. In stark contrast with what Erik hoped he would be, the fact that the music serves as a catalyst to discovering his ancestry only makes matters worse as the thing he loves most irrevocably changes all he’s ever known.

Caught against the backdrop of war, Simon & the Oaks is about the people surviving the climate of its unavoidable reverberations despite never fully washing upon their shores. We see how the fear bred alters perceptions and motives, morphing truth from a commodity into something that can be kept quiet until best suiting those possessing it. People stray from the moral path at times and look to bestow ideals onto those without any desire for them; parents do their best to teach, protect, and provide when their future could turn to darkness at any second. We’re shown those in the fight, those desperately attempting to steer clear, and the survivors forever marked by its horrors through Simon and the members of uniquely extended family. They project strength, weakness, hope, and despair as he looks to overcome his own personal troubles.

Containing a very strong cast, Sjöholm, Gödicke, and Liefers excel as the glue connecting both halves through parental instincts. Their clash of desires and techniques push sons into the other’s arms, but ill will never manifests for longer than a selfish instant. Their love for the boys and each other propels them through the tragedy while providing a stable childhood with which to move forward. And while Wächter’s young Simon is a perfectly nuanced performance full of disappointment and anger in his inability to make his parents happy as well as promise for the life he never would have known without Ruben’s influence, the film is truly Skarsgård’s. Doing his lineage proud, his rebellious teen must straddle the line of selfishly petty ego and honest, compassionate truth. The result isn’t always bathed in optimism, but what complex life ever is?

[1] Bill Skarsgård i Simon og eiketrærne
[2] Helen Sjöholm og Jonathan S. Wäcther i Simon og eiketrærne (Foto: Nordisk Film Distribusjon AS).
[3] Bill Skarsgård og Erica Löfgren i Simon og eiketrærne (Foto: Nordisk Film Distribusjon AS).

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