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(After enjoying a successful film festival run, Ása Helga Hjörleifsdóttir’s feature debut, The Swan is in theaters now before hitting VOD in the fall.)

Iceland’s rugged shores and mountains form the evocatively austere background – dramatic in both natural and cinematic ways – for filmmaker Ása Helga Hjörleifsdóttir’s feature debut, The Swan (“Svanurinn” in the original Icelandic). Against the towering glacial peaks and roiling ocean stands 9-year-old Sól, a girl from the capital city of Reykjavík sent north to her mother’s relatives to learn discipline. She’s apparently a difficult child – though the only real hint of her past troubles is when her great aunt greets her with a cheerful “you don’t have the eyes of a thief!” – and her parents feel the country will do her good. As it turns out, Sól may just be the most stable character we meet, curious about the world and resilient in the face of the occasionally hostile and frequently inappropriate behavior of many of the ostensible adults. Though the title most directly refers to the local myth of a monster masquerading as a white swan, Sól, too, is a majestic bird about to take off for more welcoming pastures, waiting only for her wings to grow.

Played by 12-year-old Gríma Valsdóttir, Sól is an initially inscrutable girl. We know she likes to read and write magical realist tales – which she narrates to us in voiceover – but whatever agitation she feels within barely manifests itself without. At the start of this simultaneously minimalist and taut narrative, she observes the emotional turmoil of her elders, her own sentiments tamped down. Slowly, however, as her need for connection grows, she comes out of her shell, whether reacting to the slaughter of a favored animal for meat (they’re on a farm) or to the charming words – written and spoken – of her chosen object of greatest interest, an itinerant farmhand (and wannabe writer) named Jón, who is forced to sleep on the other bed in her room. He’s a problematic role model, for sure (though not necessarily worse than the farmers’ daughter, who shows up 30 minutes in, distraught) – a bit of a drunk whose behavior teeters between the paternalistic and creepy – but also the only person who takes Sól seriously as an individual worthy of attention. He sees the swan-to-be beneath the ruffled cygnet feathers.

Beyond the magnificent central performance of young Miss Valsdóttir, the rest of the cast delivers perfectly pitched, naturalistic acting that merges in beautiful harmony with the untamed landscapes around them. This wilderness is photographed in gorgeous detail by cinematographer Martin Neumeyer (Lotte), especially in the phantasmagorical gloaming that passes for nightfall in the summer months of the far north. Indeed, with her penchant for elliptical editing and shorthand screenwriting (all to the benefit of the story), director Hjörleifsdóttir straddles the fine line between dreamscape and reality with admirable nuance, making the final, gentle cathartic meeting between girl and swan – or is it girl and self? – resonate with profound meaning. Fledgling no longer, Sól takes to the sky, imagination in hand, carrying us in her bewitching wake.

– Christopher Llewellyn Reed (@ChrisReedFilm)

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Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator. A member of both the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA) and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, he is: lead film critic at Hammer to Nail; Managing Editor at Film Festival Today; formerly the host of the award-winning Reel Talk with Christopher Llewellyn Reed, from Dragon Digital Media; and the author of Film Editing: Theory and Practice. In addition, he is one of the founders and former cohosts of The Fog of Truth, a podcast devoted to documentary cinema.

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