Scandinavian cinema really knows how to dig deep into human emotions and relationships, dissecting them to the very core. They are not at all afraid to show us the ugliest, deepest parts of what being human is all about. Because let’s face it – we’re all deeply flawed, troubled and frustrated (the later comes with living in a modern Western society) and we’re all dealing with our problems in our own way. And while most mainstream films decide to overlook this aspect of humanity or include it only for the purpose of preaching to the audience how not to behave, this film fully embraces the fact that no matter how perfect we may seem, we are all deeply troubled and fragile. And in our competitive, capitalistic society, adolescence has became the peak point of our frailty; no matter how much the adults would like us to believe that there’s nothing better than being a young, carefree teenager. Because this is the time when we form our identity, when we’re trying to figure out who we are and who we would like to become; when we’re under dangerously strong influence of our peers, our significant Others (I am using this term to describe someone who has a great influence on individual’s self concept) and under great influence of the media. There’s hardly anyone more perceptive to the images that the media daily imposes upon us than teenagers – whether it’s something as “innocent” as fashion trends, or something quite more serious and potentially dangerous as body images that are considered attractive and desirable. Most of the teenagers barely make it through this difficult life stage – but then there are also some of us who completely fall apart. And while there’s a long list of films portraying alcoholism, drug abuse and other forms of self-harm among teenagers, there’s almost no films that would focus on eating disorders, even though they’re unbelievably common – especially among teenage girls.
Sanna Lenken, who herself suffered from anorexia as a teenager, recognized this absence of anorexia and bulimia in cinematic world and decided to dedicate her first feature film to a teenage girl Katja, a competitive ice-skater, who completely breaks down under the pressure that is imposed upon not just athletes, but female bodies in general. However, what I found particularly great about this film is that the story doesn’t revolve solely around Katja, the perfect daughter, student and talented competitive ice-skater who is secretly starving herself to death, but around her whole family – particularly around her younger, pre-teen sister Stella, who admires and idolizes Katja (and strives to be just like her), until she one day walks in on her throwing up in a bathroom after being forced into eating a meal. It is clear that Stella doesn’t exactly know what she just walked in on – she knows it’s something bad and that she should tell her parents, but she doesn’t know what having anorexia (or bulimia) actually means, the consequences it can have. And Katja does everything in her power to keep Stella quiet – she blackmails her into keeping her secret and Stella, too young for carrying around such a burden, a secret that’s affecting her sister’s health and is weakening the dynamics of their whole family, is beginning to slowly spiralling, losing focus in school and getting lower grades. When she’s found destroying school’s property, one of the teachers finally contacts her parents – and the truth comes out. But that’s where the troubles only begin – because the parents don’t know how to approach the problem either, since they naively think that they could cure her by simply take a family vacation and spend some much needed family time together.
Rebecka Josephson is a complete revelation as Stella, a chubby little sister with a big heart, who has a crush on Katja’s 35 year-old ice-skating instructor and who is secretly writing dirty poems and prank-calling her big sister, trying to communicate what she can’t tell her in person. Lenken also deserves all the praise that she can get for writing such a character – a character that seems so real and easy to relate to, but is at the same time all too rarely present in films that we usually consume. The two lead actresses work in perfect harmony and while the whole film’s an emotional roller-coaster that will make you laugh and bring you to tears, it was this realistic portrayal of sisterhood that resonated with me the most. I haven’t yet seen a film that would so truthfully capture what being a sister is like. There’s love, hate, jealousy, resentment, competition for parents’ attention and approval, worrying for each other’s well-being… And it is exactly this inclusion of the whole family into the story that makes this film so great and powerful – because Lenken manages to acknowledge that the victim of this horrifying disease is not only Katja, but the whole family – and especially her chubby little sister.
Sanna Lenken made a wonderful debut about sisterhood and the vulnerable teenage years during which we so often manage to become our own worst enemy. Although the film begins to struggle a bit in the third act and doesn’t bring the narrative to a satisfying conclusion, the heartbreaking and unbelievably accurate portrayal of the damage that having a family member with an eating disorder does to a family, makes up for the unsatisfying ending. What we are left with is an admirable first feature that will make you think for days and will leave you in anticipation of Lenken’s next film projects.
Directed by: Sanna Lenken
Written by: Sanna Lenken
Starring: Rebecka Josephson, Amy Deasismont, Henrik Norlen, Annika Hallin
Running Time: 95 minutes