“I can take care of myself.”
When I first saw the cover art for the Swedish film The Girl, I assumed it was some kind of horror flick. You must admit, it’s a striking image. The fact that the movie shares a cinematographer with horror hit Let the Right One In would seem to confirm that. Now having seen The Girl, I can confirm that the movie is a dark coming of age drama. There’s no supernatural evil afoot, but there’s something a lot more frightening—growing up.
In a small town somewhere in Sweden, a 9-year-old girl (Blanca Engstrom) is sad to learn that her parents are leaving for Africa for the summer for volunteer work. The parents leave her in the care of her aunt. After a few days, the hard-partying aunt takes off with a man she meets, leaving the girl alone. In her newfound isolation, the girl manages to get by, slyly observing the older kids and adults she knows. Along the way, she learns a lot of hard truths about the world around her.
The first thing we see in the movie is an extreme close-up of a syringe needle jabbed into the nameless girl’s arm while she’s at the doctor’s office. Here’s a metaphor for the overall movie if there ever was one, in that the adult world jabs its way into her life and gets under her skin.
Mostly, this is a slice-of-life flick. The whole thing takes place over summer, with swimming lessons in a lake, long walks across fields, and kids enjoying warm afternoons where there’s nothing to do but just hang out. As such, it’s just as much about tone and atmosphere then it is about plot. There are a lot of long silences, a lot of sweeping establishing shots, and an overall slow pace, again capturing that lazy summer day feeling. But the movie is no mere nostalgia trip.
No one will call this movie horror, but there are scenes that are certainly horrific. The whole “peer pressure” thing comes up when the girl joins with some teenagers to torment a young boy, and then this comes back to haunt our protagonist. At another point, she sees the older kids try to swindle some adults out of some money. She then takes what she learns from this and does her wheeling and dealing with another adult later on, coldly manipulating him for her own benefit. All this plays out as the girl gets malnourished and increasingly sickly-looking over time, and her hair becomes more and more of a stringy tangled mess, which is why she ends up looking like one of those spooky ghost children from a horror movie. None of this is suspenseful in a traditional cinema sense, but it’s psychologically freaky, and some scenes will linger in viewers’ minds long after the movie is over.
It’s tricky trying to figure out who this girl is. I see a few parallels among this movie and two other recent dark kid flicks, Let the Right One In and Where the Wild Things Are. Both of those films have kid protagonists who feel lonely and frustrated, much like the main character in The Girl. The big difference is that the girl has no relief from these feelings. There are no vampiric flirtations or fantasy escapism to provide an alternative to her malaise. Also, we’re never explicitly told why she feels this way. She’s sad and isolated right from the start, even before her parents leave and she sees how hellish the adult world can be. There are no bullies or family strife conveniently pointing a thematic arrow to “this is why she’s sad.” Instead, she’s just sad. Similarly, the question of why she never gets help or tells anyone she’s alone is never really raised. Some part of her, it seems, wants to be alone, but the reasons why aren’t addressed.
It isn’t until after she’s left by herself that the girl actually shows some glimmer of life, initially enjoying her newfound freedom. It doesn’t last, though, as the morose feeling again takes over. The movie demands a lot of young actress Blanca Engstrom, and she proves capable of carrying the entire movie. Her eyes convey deep sadness beyond her years, and she’s believable as she quietly retreats to the corners when other people are around, not to mention the perpetual awkwardness that is pre-adolescence. To be fair, I am not now or have ever been a 9-year-old girl, so I have no idea how much of this movie is what girls really go through when growing up and how much is exaggerated for shock value. I’m guessing it’s somewhere in the middle.
The movie is all about tone and atmosphere, which is fine, but the downside to that is there is a lot that goes unexplained. Near the end of the movie, a new character drops in out of the sky (literally!) and just who he is and why he makes a connection with the girl is ambiguous. Then, the way the storyline is resolved is abrupt, and leaves a lot of unanswered questions. It’s made clear that the girl is in a new place emotionally when it’s all over, which is good, but some viewers won’t be satisfied with just that, stopping to say, “Hey, wait a minute…”
The movie has a lot of beautiful—and beautifully grotesque—visuals, and it’s captured nicely on this disc, with bright, vivid colors and deep black levels. The sound is also good, even though it’s a quiet film, with sparse dialogue and almost no music. There are no extras, which is a shame, as it would be interesting to learn how and why this unusual film was created.
It’s hard to say whether to recommend The Girl. This is not a movie for everyone. The slow pace, thin plot, and occasionally icky subject matter will make it a tough watch for many viewers. On the other hand, it’s excellently filmed and acted, and will reward patient viewers looking for something out of the ordinary.