Norwegian drama IT’S ONLY MAKE BELIEVE begins as a picture of naivete, idealism and wayward youth. Enraptured lovers Jenny and Frank sit by the side of a placid lake, discussing an unexpected pregnancy and deciding to get engaged, with a pawned or perhaps stolen ring sealing their bond. It’s only moments later that the love-struck couple breaks into a warehouse to do an illegal job at the behest of a friend. Their recklessness has a sudden, heavy cost as an unintended casualty sends Jenny to a lengthy prison sentence while Frank ends up severely paralyzed.
The film rejoins Jenny at the end of her prison sentence, trying to make amends with her past in order to be united with her daughter, Merete. Merete, now an adolescent, has been raised in comfort by very well off foster parents., which draws attention to the question of what Jenny can do to contribute to her estranged daughter’s upbringing. Numerous interconnected challenges face Jenny: creating a home environment suitable despite having no sustainable income, proving her worth in the face of Merete’s doubtful foster mother, and the more nefarious threat of a smalltime gangster instrumental in her initial run-in with the law, who begins to blackmail her into illegal activity.
For a story that qualifies as a crime thriller, there are amazingly human touches. As Jenny volleys between new and old relationships with different male figures in her life, a bank’s loan officer who recognizes her from school days, a dubious friend from her past whose actions may very well have led to her incarceration, and her once fiancé and father of her child, now lacking the ability to function consciously….her inability to move decisively in one direction or another is very believable. As is the grey area these relationships dwell in. Jenny may not always seem to be doing what is wise, and so continues to stubbornly cling to a level of immaturity. But that is what people are like in real life. Silje Salomonsen, who plays Jenny, masterfully portrays her turbulent mix of emotions, whether its feelings of inadequacy when meeting her daughter, or her guilt and frustration as she tends to the incapacitated Frank.
Yet there is an even dynamic between levity and melodrama. Jenny‘s exchanges with her daughter are uplifting, her handling of her former classmate’s clumsy but good-natured advances humorous. There is a refreshing lack of vitriol between people, save for those who are truly villainous. When the threat of violence becomes tangible as a result of her antagonist’s belligerence, the effect is indeed suffocating. It is impressive how the shift in dynamics is handled. And here again Salomonsen rises to the occasion, her expression of desperation as she is pushed too far and escape becomes less and less of an option is quite compelling.
The challenge of regaining independence is universal issue dealt with throughout the film as Jenny’s strife constantly raises the question: how does one return to being a self-sufficient member of society when disadvantaged by time spent imprisoned? There are also indications of Norway’s particular values and social mores as well, like belief in rehabilitation and reform They are shown subtly as a function of the story, never overstated. For instance, the friendly exchange between a penitentiary official upon Jenny’s release, family members’ restraint from expressing outrage at her troubles, and even Jenny‘s own stubborn resolve to return to and trust the friend who may have gotten her into so much trouble, and shows no little sign of changing for the better.
The screening I attended at New York’s Scandinavia House was followed by a Q & A with producer Gary Cranner. In addition to a discussion of the aforementioned values, which led to both impressed and critical comments, the audience beheld a remarkably independent ‘making of’ story behind the film. Its details accounted for some of the incredible genuineness that translated on screen. Unable to garner financial backing, Cranner and director Arild Østin Ommundsen persisted in bringing their vision to life over a long period of time. Many parts, such as that of the prison official, are played by regular people. Jenny and Merete are in fact a real life mother and daughter, and happen to be the wife and child of Ommundsenmade.
The nonconforming drama, with its fighting spirit both within and without, is bound to make audience members leave feeling something intense.
IT’S ONLY MAKE BELIEVE has screenings March 24 and 25 at the Cleveland International Film Festival, and April 4 and 6 at the Phoenix FilmFestival.
Me on twitter = @mondocurry