Anyone who remembers adolescence as the best years of their life is a liar, and anyone in need of proof why needs only to watch Sparrows to understand that, put simply, being a teenager really sucks.
Sparrows (Þrestir), the latest film by Icelandic director Rúnar Rúnarsson is a meditation on growing up (or refusing to), the power of parents to shape and destroy their children and life in a remote country town.
But most of all it’s the story of Ari (Atli Oskar Fjalarsson), a gifted young singer forced to leave his home in Reykjavik after his mother and her husband move to Africa for a new life with a dad who’s been absent for years.
The setting of Sparrows is never overtly stated, though the word “west” and Ísafjörður airport, where arrivals and departures are jumping distance apart, both feature in the film which, as anyone who’s travelled Iceland will tell you, basically translates to a location far, far away from anywhere.
Perhaps it’s not surprising to learn that Ari’s father, Gunnar (Ingvar Eggert Sigurđsson) is an alcoholic. At least that was the reaction from this reviewer, who grew up in a 500-odd country town in rural New South Wales with two pubs, a bowling club and golf club. Sparrows confirmed to me that some things are universal: the more remote you are, the more you drink.
It’s not only Gunnar who has a problem with the booze and other illicit substances. Much of the town, regardless of age, hit the bottle whenever they can. In this sense, Sparrows quickly dispels any myth that living in a land of jaw-dropping fjords and midnight sun is all light and comfort. Far from it. Life here is tough, but these Icelanders are just as tough, kept alive by sex, drugs and rock-solid strength to withstand almost anything.
An outcast in comparison, the mulish and awkward Ari, who baulks at killing a seal and lacks the muscles of his fish factory workmates, finds solace in music, even if it means singing in a concrete silo. His grandmother (Kristbjörg Kjeld) who teaches him to knit may be the only person he can depend on. (Kjeld’s performance is by far one of the film’s highlights. She could well be any nanna anywhere).
In many ways Rúnarsson’s film is a perfect reflection of its setting. Exquisitely shot, Sparrows is a cinematic delight for the eyes, but he pulls no punches in the confronting truths he reveals. This is a coming-of-age story told with such brutal honesty that several scenes will likely make viewers feel squeamishly uncomfortable, which is probably just what Rúnarsson wanted to achieve. It’s a deeply-moving film that will prove difficult to forget.
Sparrows is currently showing at the Scandinavian Film Festival.