Title: Simon and the Oaks
Director: Lisa Ohlin
Starring: Bill Skarsgard, Jan Josef Leifers, Stefan Godicke, Helen Sjoholm, Jonatan Wachter, Karl Martin Eriksson
No, this is not the story of a crayon-obsessed kid and his plot to nourish and grow seedlings of Stubhub’s “Ticket Oak,” alas. A rangy coming-of-age drama based on Marianne Fredriksson’s Swedish book of the same name, “Simon and the Oaks” spans a couple decades in telling the story of an outcast adolescent of partial and secreted Jewish heritage growing up amidst the considerable political and social turmoil of World War II. Arthouse appreciation for this attractively photographed recipient of 13 Guldbagge nominations, Sweden’s Oscar equivalent, will depend on a given viewer’s tolerance for broad-strokes melodrama of intertwined fates that lacks the ambition and emotional complications of many similar screen works.
Set on the outskirts of Gothenburg, the film centers on Simon (Jonatan Wachter, and played later as an adult by Bill Skarsgard, son of Stellan), a sensitive and intellectually inclined boy who consistently feels out of place — at home more in a tree bordering his family’s property than with any other kids his age. His mother Karin (Helen Sjoholm) is kind and supportive, but his father Erik (Stefan Godicke) is a bit of a prick, so it’s a surprise when Simon is able to convince them to let him attend an upper-class grammar school in the city.
There Simon meets Isak (Karl Martin Eriksson) — the son of Ruben (Jan Josef Leifers), a wealthy Jewish bookseller who has fled Nazi persecution in Germany for the safe(r) haven of Sweden — and is additionally swept up and amazed by generally broader cultural horizons. As the threat of Nazi incursion spreads like a late afternoon shadow, secrets about Simon’s birth rise to the surface, and a pair of burgeoning surrogate relationships bring complication. When Isak is taken in by Simon’s family, he draws comfort from physical activity and woodcraft with the ship-building Erik, while Simon much more shares Ruben’s love of the arts.
“Simon and the Oaks” is directed by Lisa Ohlin, and there’s no doubt that the film’s technical package is a solid one. The cinematography and score are both superlative, and the film never feels phony or even less than entirely authentic in its period piece detail and evocation of a bygone era. The acting, too, is solid, giving the movie a collection of many strong, self-contained scenes.
It’s just that the sum is less than the whole of its parts, since the film continuously opts for narrative forward movement rather than a deeper exploration of motivations and feeling. Erik is so outwardly and openly hostile to his son’s learning as to almost defy belief, and other character motivations are ascribed causality that comes across as hopelessly pat. It’s a smidge too harsh to characterize “Simon and the Oaks,” as Michael Nordine did in his “Village Voice” review, as middlebrow awards bait, but that criticism is at least in the neighborhood of apt classification. Ohlin’s film is beautiful, but John Boyne’s “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas” — both its 2008 cinematic adaptation, and the original source material — remain stronger evocations of Jewish-rooted World War II drama, the early intrusion of “the dark hour of reason” upon adolescence, and the dramatic consequences thereof.
NOTE: “Simon and the Oaks” opens this week in New York City at the Paris Theater and in Los Angeles at the Landmark, expanding nationally from there. For more information on the movie, visit www.SimonAndTheOaks.TheFilmArcade.com.
Written by: Brent Simon