Heartstone, dir. Guðmundur Arnar Guðmundsson│Ever since Grímur Hákonarson won Un Certain Regard with Rams back in 2015 and Baltasar Kormákur’s Everest opened Venice a few month later, the latest crop of Icelandic directors seem to have been unmistakably on a high. It’s almost with some trepidation that we now begin to wonder whether this close-knit, accomplished group will eventually slip up. Fortunately, Guðmundur Arnar Guðmundsson’s Heartstone is anything but a step in the wrong direction.
Having already sat amongst some pretty hefty film programmes at Venice and Toronto International Film Festival, it’s a sign of Heartstone’s quality that it is already playing at its second TIFF this year – this time the main competition at the 16th Transilvania Film Festival. This latest drama definitely sits on the Rams end of the cinematic spectrum, but it’s much less an adult tale told with a youthful sense of humour, and much more a youthful coming-of-age story that is handled with the maturity it deserves.
In fact, the extent of this film’s maturity and depth is so exceptional, and it does so many different things, that it is almost difficult to put your finger on quite how or why this debut is so good. But the crux of Heartstone is unmistakably the experiences shared by two teenage boys one summer in a Icelandic fishing village that is about as far away from Reykjavík as it is possible to get on the island. Our focus is particularly pointed towards a pint-sized, double-denim-wearing stud called Thor as he tries to court his first love, but just as important is his ever so slightly gangly, dashing counterpart Christian.
Initially, Heartstone seems a rather straight-faced European drama – we are greeted by Thor directing his friends towards a shawl of giant fish, and before long they are fishing them up out of the water and rather gorily tearing out their guts and gills. Only Christian pulls a short straw by pulling out a rather hideous-looking, inedible fish. But without ever being less straight-faced or European, somehow Guðmundsson’s debut evolves into something much richer. Something that constantly bubbles with the angst and frustrations of undergoing pre-pubescent hormones.
Before long, this very same Thor is even being chased round his house by his fiery sisters, who tear a towel away from his body and shut him out of the house naked. These are exactly the sort of ridiculous, could-only-happen-to-a-teenager problems that Heartstone harps on in microscopic detail, but if anything they only intensify due to being set in a small town where words spread like wild fire. As a result, the intensity of these embarrassments – and the exceptionally sincere performances of these incredibly young unprofessional actors – is so strong that sometimes Heartstone really does transport you into a little realm of emotions which you reluctantly formed as a teenager.
In such remarkably empathetic scenes, the film frequently tracks in the footsteps of its young characters, filming just over their shoulders, allowing us to helplessly sink into their perspectives. But in more riotous scenes like the ones we see between Thor and his sister, the camera work becomes so fast, and the film’s synth music so forceful that some of Heartstone’s impeccably paced scenes become almost narcotic.
The film’s colour schemes are also often clearly quite Scandinavian, frequently having that distinctive bright, white sunlight to them or a certain moody, thick greyness. But Guðmundsson never limits himself to any one thing, so sometimes stark primal colours sometimes flood his films emotional palettes. Against this impeccable technical backdrop, the boys deliver a number of perfectly cagey performances as their manliness or coolness is repeatedly called into question by their community.
This gives Heartstone a wonderful tension between being simultaneously both detached and very emotionally confrontational. Initially, this all seems to stem from Thor’s body troubles and his unconvincing attempts at courting the beautiful Beth (whilst her best friend Hanna is head-over-heels in love with the floppy-haired Christian). But soon seeds start to be planted that suggest that pulling ugly, inedible fish from the ocean might not be Christian’s only trouble in life.
As Christian’s relationship with his abusive father and Thor intensifies, the film’s story becomes ever more rich and complex. The many different, heavy themes that are drawn out by Guðmundsson in the fall out of Christian’s developments are never handled in a facile manner, and when taken together, they produce a variety of impressions so vast that Heartstone sometimes feels almost to perfectly whole a narrative for a film that is just 129 minutes long.
Plus, if your no longer a teenager, you will definitely leave the auditorium being grateful that you no longer have to deal with the turmoil of early life. At the same time, though, you definitely experience a certain longing to restore the incredibly pure friendships you formed at the hardest of times of youth too. On top of that, there is definitely an additional relief that someone is finally once again exploring the complexities of youth in a way that is as mature as it deserves.■
│In cooperation with│
Heartstone / Hjartasteinn│ Director: Guðmundur Arnar Guðmundsson│ Screenplay: Guðmundur Arnar Guðmundsson│ Camera: Sturla Brandth Grøvlen│ Editing: Anne Østerud, Janus Billeskov Jansen│ Music: -│ Cast: Baldur Einarsson, Blær Hinriksson, Diljá Valsdóttir│ Producer: Anton Máni Svansson, Lise Orheim Stender, Jesper Morthorst, Guðmundur Arnar Guðmundsson│ Production Company: SF Studios Production / Join Motion Pictures│Country: Denmark /Iceland│ Year: 2016│ Running Time: 129 min.│ International Sales: Films Boutique│ Festival: Transilvania IFF 2017│