The Good Son (2011)

A Scandinavian chamber film that is both a thrilling and (gut-wrenchingly) chilling domestic drama.

good-son-hyva-poikaFinland
3.5*

Director:
Zaida Bergroth

Screenwriters:
Jan Forsström

Zaida Bergroth
Director of Photography:
Anu Keränen

Running time: 90 minutes

Original title: Hyvä poika

The Finnish The Good Son (Hyvä poika) is a typically Scandinavian affair, its characters and their borderline behaviour not unlike those found in many of Lars von Trier’s films. The story is told in small scenes consisting of very believable actions and reactions, though these are often difficult to look at because of a feeling that evil, at worst, or malice at best, is always just around the corner.

The film’s second scene very effectively sketches the main character of Ilmari, the lanky teenage boy who is always by the side of his actress-mother, Leila: When the eye of a stranger at a café lingers too long on Leila, she cuts down the poor man with a histrionic outburst. When she leaves, Ilmari sits down opposite the man and fidgets approvingly with the man’s mobile phone before dumping it in a soft drink.

The Good Son takes place almost exclusively at the family’s cottage in the middle of the summer in central Finland, where deepest night looks like twilight. But don’t let the illuminated wilderness fool you: Despite the light outside, Ilmari’s protective presence is darker than strangers could know, and when anyone challenges his mother or comes between the two of them, he lashes out in ways that are as cruel as they are easy.

The film comprises several very small and seemingly arbitrarily added moments that in retrospect allow us to see how unhinged many of its characters are, and yet the screenplay doesn’t seem to go for the jugular, instead having plenty of opportunities for the characters to be comforted by outside forces.

 

One of these forces is a writer, Aimo, still grieving the loss of his wife who tragically drowned a few years earlier. He is drawn to Leila even as her son is getting ready to silently declare war on this impostor whose presence as the only adult male in the household, Ilmari’s father having left years earlier, he sees as a threat to family unity.

At the same time, Ilmari’s aggression, alternately active and passive, is counterbalanced by his innocent young brother, Unto, who spends his days lazing in the forest around the isolated cottage, using his camcorder to record the lives of small insects. Compared with the unit of Ilmari and Leila, who decide to use the fireplace despite the birds nesting inside, Unto clearly serves as an entry point and an anchor for the viewer’s experience in this small but brutal world of cascading emotions.

While these emotions often seem inconsequential, they slowly paint a picture of a family in crisis. Ilmari, in particular, is affected by a series of external factors that, while they certainly don’t excuse his behaviour, provide a good sense of a young man in great need of help, not unlike his mother, whose petulance and pigheadedness is visible in his own actions, as well.

Shot with handheld cameras and producing a very real sense of dread, The Good Son is clearly reminiscent of the Dogme 95 filmmakers, but director Zaida Bergroth’s product is much cleaner, with crisp, sunlit images that make great use of the rural Finnish landscape, and sound design that is intended to work against our expectations.

Despite its intensity, the film often jumps between storylines and not all the characters are given a particularly memorable character arc, yet even though we know so little about the characters, the film can affect the viewer profoundly – the result of very finely managed performances and motivations that seem as human as they seem monstrous.

In creating Ilmari, the acting of Samuli Niittymäki, in particular, is notable for its representation of a young man who seems confident and determined yet has no clear idea what he wants to do with his life except be an enemy of anyone outside the family circle. He is a wrecking ball that hits us in the stomach many times during the film, because he seems weak and almost pathetic until he decides to wreak havoc.

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