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There are at least a couple of foibles to which family films are prone to succumb. On one hand, the genre lends itself to overly saccharine storytelling that is, all too frequently, emotionally manipulative and replete with a sentimentality that is ultimately vapid and emotionally hollow. Additionally, many feature-length family films—especially of the big-industry American variety—often conflate childlikeness with childishness, resulting in manic, Looney Toons-esque narratives that never stop to take a breath for fear that they might, just for a second, stop entertaining their audience. In this kind of cinematic climate, therefore, valuable is the family film that refuses to equate simplicity with the jejune, the heartfelt with the insipid and dull. (Indeed, one could argue that the widespread international appeal of the films produced by Studio Ghibli is due precisely to their active refusal to fall into the more banal trapping of the genre.)
Stepping into this broader conversation surrounding genre and conventionality is the feature-length debut of Norwegian writer/director Torfinn Iversen, Oskar’s Amerika (2017), a truly delightful family film, unflinching in its willingness to explore hardship and tragedy in order to offer a nuanced, beautiful depiction of a more earnest brand of hope.
Iversen’s film centres around the titular Oskar, a 10-year-old boy who is sent to live with his standoffish, grumpy grandfather over the summer break, while his mother heads off to America for a job interview. Living with his grandfather, Oskar soon makes the acquaintance of a mischievous group of boys, and he even develops a crush on a local girl; but ultimately, he finds friendship with an eccentric middle-aged man named Levi, who roams the countryside with his bespectacled nearsighted horse. In spite of his grandfathers’ insistence that he stay away from Levi, the two quickly hatch a plan to sail to America, where Oskar will be reunited with his mother and Levi (and his horse) can roam free on the wide open prairies.
Perhaps what is most noticeable and immediately commendable about Oskar’s Amerika is its general disinterest in pandering to its viewers, young and old alike, with juvenile humour or a near-incessant string of melodramatic plot contrivances that rush the narrative from one event to the next with very little connective tissue in-between. Instead, Iversen’s film is unafraid to adopt a relatively measured pace that values, as the film-making adage says, showing over and above telling, as it offers us multiple opportunities to identify and empathise with Oskar in his predicament.
In an early scene in Oskar’s Amerika, we see our young protagonist wake himself up in time for school. He sits up in his bed, the wall behind him covered in posters depicting various iconic films and images associated with American Westerns. Moving into the living room, he finds his mother and a man who is not his father fast asleep. Empty liquor bottles are scattered about. Oskar arms himself with his toy bow and arrow, uses ashes from a nearby tray to adorn himself with war paint, and shoots his suction cup dart at the sleeping man’s head, where it sticks with precision as a whistled, recurrent Ennio Morricone-style tune fires up the film’s score.
Yes, it’s a gag – and a hilarious one at that – but more importantly, Iversen uses this brief scene (and much more like it) to add dimensionality to his characters. He we get our first hint that Oskar’s mother is an alcoholic; we learn that Oskar loves Westerns and that he, like most children his age, has a vibrant imagination; and as he takes up his toy bow, we begin to understand that Oskar sees himself as a defender of the helpless and innocent (in this case, his incapacitated mother). This is but one of a number of possible examples in Oskar’s Amerika where, instead of relaying these pieces of characterization through dialogue, Iversen trusts that his viewers – even younger ones – can read between the lines. He encourages us to do so freely, and the film’s emotional core is more earnest as a result.
In addition to his smart, visually-oriented sense of character development, Iversen also incorporates into Oskar’s Amerika a number of clever subversions of genre convention that work together to place a minimal emphasis on melodramatic, superficial action. Consider, for example, the situation in Oskar spends time with the gang of young boys he meets shortly after his arrival at his grandfather’s, and subsequently has a falling out with them after they force him to spray paint the word ‘idiot’ onto Levi’s horse. In most family films, this trope wherein a good kid falls in with a bad crowd usually results in bullying and physical abuse, and ostensibly this scenario in Oskar’s Amerika is leading down a similar path. And while there certainly is a sense in which this happens and the group of troublemakers do serve as a kind of adversary to our protagonist, this conflict is more or less a background concern for Oskar, who more pressing matters to which he must attend.
The central conflict in Oskar’s Amerika arises from Oskar’s dogged and determined pursuit of freedom and justice for his family, friends, and himself in a system that is stacked against him. Levi is labelled a crackpot and faces the constant threat of institutionalisation; Oskar’s mother is deemed an alcoholic and a lost cause by his grandfather, who constantly seeks to manipulate and control him. And yet these are the people Oskar calls friends: the outcasts and the marginalised. As Oskar and Levi team up and prepare for their voyage to America, therefore, the film’s narrative threatens to turn saccharine at the last moment. Oskar and Levi envision the American West as a veritable promised land, a heavenly place where they will be free from hardship and oppression.
But Iversen is unwilling to abide such an easy resolution. Read and understood in light of America’s tragic history of barbaric and cruel treatment of the Native American population (some of which is alluded to in Oskar’s predilection for Fordian Westerns and iconography, namely his dreams of Monument Valley, Utah, where many of John Ford’s films were shot), as well as the country’s more recent and restrictive immigration policies, Oskar’s idyllic, Rockwellian dream appears tragically naive. Ultimately, however, Oskar’s Amerika does not leave us without hope; for even if life in America is not as picturesque as he envisaged, Oskar is himself a beacon of hope—a friend to the friendless and a caretaker of the weak and downtrodden. Moreover, his love for his mother and Levi stands as a reminder that there is a great strength and solace to be found in the community. In the end, therefore, Torfinn Iversen’s Oskar’s Amerika is a bittersweet and tremendously encouraging family film that understands what so many other entries in the genre forget: a bright light shines most vividly against a dark backdrop. •