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Simon and the Oaks

2011 | 122 min | 2.39:1

Simon and the Oaks


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Theatrical release date

 26 October, 2012

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Simon and the Oaks Preview  

 / 10
Preview by Brian Orndorf, October 25, 2012

“Simon and the Oaks” make a curious choice to be a WWII drama without much in the way of wartime suffering. Eschewing grand displays of European misery to keep confrontations intimate, the feature is an unexpectedly bitter effort, surveying the erosion of domestic protection as a situation of parenting assistance turns into a colossal shift in a household dynamic. This Swedish picture, based on the best seller by Marianne Fredriksson, is surprising but also frustrating, especially when larger ideas on musical liberation and environmental connection are lost to the melodrama, resulting in an intermittently powerful, yet vaguely detailed film.

Simon (Jonatan S. Wachter) is a young child living in rural Sweden in 1939. Connected to the great oaks near his house, Simon understands the world differently, a fact that confounds his laborer father Erik (Stefan Godicke) and endears him to loving mother Karin (Helen Sjoholm). Joining a city school capable of meeting his educational appetite, Simon befriends Isak (Karl Linnertorp), a Jewish boy who’s struggling at home with his Nazi-fearing mother and businessman father, Ruben (Jan Josef Liefers). Bonding quickly, the children soon harbor a desire to swap lives, with Simon feeling as though he’s meant for a better life, drawn to the arts under Ruben’s guidance. When WWII breaks out and the Germans begin to stomp on Europe, Ruben asks Karin and Erik to take care of Isak while he tends to life in the city, a situation that begins to push Simon out of view as his father takes to the new addition’s interest in construction. After the war ends, Simon (Bill Skarsgard) is eager to establish himself, learning a long-held secret about his birth that alters his life forever.

There’s a literary structure to “Simon and the Oaks” that’s dutifully organized by co-screenwriter/director Lisa Ohlin. It’s an expansive tale that takes place in both a pre-war and post-war setting, tracking the exploding consciousness of Simon as he comes to deal with the reality of his upbringing and the distortion of his family role. Ohlin elects for a classic cinematic language to the effort, working with gorgeous Swedish locations and a known threat in the oncoming Nazis, who, in the case of Isak’s mentally fractured mother, cause immense panic, driving her to a suicide attempt. There are few surprises to the piece, which finds a reliable pace of confrontation, lingering on Erik’s distaste for his son’s developing sophistication, while Karin and Ruben comprehend Simon’s specialness, fighting to preserve the boy’s interests as he matures into a young man.

The screenplay successfully serves up difficulties for the two families, with the subtle swap scenario providing an agreeable twist to the war orphan routine. With Isak in the house, Simon is squeezed out by his father, forced to retreat into the wilds of his own curiosity, while Ruben provides an orchestral education that awakens the child’s soul. The first half of “Simon and the Oaks” is comfortably assembled and intriguing, especially when it lingers on the discomfort between the boys once fatherly roles are reassigned. However, what seems to be missing here is a profound understanding of Simon’s naturalistic connection, with his beloved trees playing a perplexing role in the story. Ohlin returns to forest imagery on a few occasions, but they appear to be a dramatic element explored more successfully in the original novel, finding the movie unsure what to do with the boy’s bouts with synesthesia besides simplistic rushes of memories.

“Simon and the Oaks” weaves into melodrama, yet the acting is uniformly excellent, making the true strain of broad storytelling easy to digest. Sjoholm is especially effective as Simon’s tortured mother, facing crippling health problems, the stubbornness of her husband, and romantic attention from Ruben as war rips her family apart.

The second half of the feature devolves into more numbing questions of self. Ohlin tends to drag out the subplot of Simon’s awakening, finding a few detours into sexually abusive behaviors with a disturbed Holocaust survivor superfluous to the character’s journey, trying to build a life for the young man outside of his tumultuous family woes. “Simon and the Oaks” generally loses steam the longer it tries to articulate uninteresting asides, with the effort’s coming of age inclination best served on an intimate scale of unspoken tragedy. Inflating the troubles only emphasizes storytelling shortcomings.

Starring: Bill Skarsgård, Helen Sjöholm, Jan Josef Liefers
Director: Lisa Ohlin

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