Kapgang / Denmark / 2014 / dir.Niels Arden Oplev/ 108 mins / drama / starring Villads Bøye, Anders W. Berthelsen & Sidse Babett Knudsen

Niels Arden Oplev (The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo) returns to Denmark after working in the United States for several years with this uncharacteristically tender coming-of-age comedy.

Over the course of a few, rough weeks, fourteen-year-old Martin (Villads Bøye) navigates a fluid, burgeoning sexuality, processes grief after the sudden death of his mother, and competes in a speed walking competition. The year is 1976 in this Jutland-set story of a boy adapting to his country’s rapid transition to a more liberal era.

Writers of coming-of-age films sometimes forget (or maybe choose to ignore) that growing up can be a pretty screwed-up experience. Sure, young hearts get broken over first loves all the time in the movies, but there’s a wild sort of destructiveness to childhood that’s not always captured on-screen. The ideals and pitfalls of the adult world are sometimes imposed on adolescents before they’re ready for it.

Oplev decided to adapt this story for the screen before Morten Kirk Forest even finished his hugely popular autobiographical novel of the same name. Martin’s story of coping and celebrating is a standout portrayal of childhood that’s full of humor and yet never turns away from its darker moments. Martin gets himself into some seedy situations, and explores his sexuality with both his girlfriend (Kraka Donslund Nielsen) and best friend (Frederik Winther Rasmussen). Speed Walking is an effort that proves confronting realities of childhood is the best way to understand it.

Lead actor Villads Bøye gives a bold, first-time performance as Martin and dares to hit every note Oplev asks of him. The process of grieving his mother’s death takes him through denial, anger, and hysterics, and each step rings true. Bøye is flanked by his older brother who struggles to move past the denial phase, and his father, who is at a total loss for how to raise a family on his own.

Oplev shot the film in eight and a half weeks on a four million dollar budget and clearly took great delight in designing a film that takes place in the 70’s. The American rock soundtrack includes hits like The Knack’s “My Sharona,” making this portrait of self-discovery during an imperfect childhood a perfect blend of “Dazed and Confused” and “The Perks of Being a Wallflower.” The only lingering question is what the speed walking tie-in is all about, to which Oplev remarks, “It’s kind of a stupid sport…but it was popular at the time.” Speed Walking is a consistently hilarious, all-around worthwhile effort – a real highlight of Danish cinema in 2014.