Two Icelandic teenagers, Magnea and Stella, are ride or die BFFs whose innocent curiosity about sex and drugs quickly surpasses average adolescent experimentation and escalates into drug dependency, and later an adulthood of recovery and relapse. The Icelandic setting creates a unique perspective on disappearance and its impossibility, where Iceland is shown as a place so insular a girl can’t even run away without being recognised, and where a drug addict can never truly escape or become anonymous. In a community so small that everyone knows each other, no one is a nobody, and everyone becomes implicated in the addict’s drug problem. Addiction is humanised here in a way it normally isn’t, a social problem that starts at home, and ripples out from there to affect everyone – family, friends and neighbours. So that the violence, trauma and humiliation (especially grim for the female addict) that goes along with being an addict is presented as an even darker, more shocking prospect due to its familiarity, where your friend is your rapist, your daughter, your sex worker. Unfortunately, the setting of Let Me Fall is its singular strength.
Director Baldvin Z (Life in a Fishbowl/Vonarstræti, 2014; Jitters/Órói, 2010) uses music video aesthetics and pacing to match his heroines’ nodding, black-out memories as well as non-linear chronology to piece together the puzzle of Magnea’s and Stella’s lives as they lapse between past and present. Let Me Fall shows the fall, in fact it basks in the fall, so utterly and completely smitten with watching two young women fall in love with drugs and each other that it falls into that old honeytrap – style over substance. Style over substance (abuse), in this case, takes the form of slick video clips spliced together to imitate a messy life lived as a movie trailer, where the soundtrack steers the viewer’s emotions and upstages the script. The fragmented feel of the film may succeed in capturing the twitchy allure of better living through chemistry, but in doing so completely sabotages any possibility of showing an authentic female friendship-cum-romantic relationship. The film seems more interested in watching Magnea and Stella’s sun-soaked make-out music montages than seeing them as three-dimensional characters. And so, the women remain problems not people, their relationship a husk that lacks the pulse and power dynamics needed to explain the lies that surface later on between them. Cool, recurring upside down shots (very Gaspar Noé) show drug effects on perception but never on the protagonists’ relationship.
There’s something deeply moving about drug metaphors, they’re widely-used clichés for a reason. Drug stories bear a truth worth repeating and their power lies in their very repetition and sameness. Everyone can recognise themselves in, and benefit from another person’s account of addiction, so as not to feel alone or special in their own pain. But where drug stories are cliché and benefit from sameness and repetition, their storytellers do not. Once characters are reduced to cliché and their specific personality traits are erased, a viewer will never get the full effect of metaphor, nor the full cinematic experience of losing themselves onscreen. Since Magnea and Stella are denied the specific details that make an individual, they never rise above symbolism and simply embody addiction clichés. They’re never fleshed-out or made real, and so the audience misses out on the full aspirational and experiential potential of living through them and fulfilling (what I presume is) the purpose of this film – to save the viewer from actually living through the horrors of addiction by instead experiencing them cinematically.
There’s nothing in the film’s jumpy narrative to pinpoint why Magnea and Stella move from Ritalin to heroin, skipping school to pornography, just how. Let Me Fall regales in showing how fun the parties are, how loose abandon feels, and how boring drug-fuelled conversations at dawn really sound. While it’s not necessary to assign addiction a raison d’être or locate a definitive starting or turning point, most addicts have a motive, beyond desire and danger, to self-medicate and self-obliterate. Unfortunately, this film stalls on desire and danger, a pair of impulses given the weight and sole responsibility for the protagonists’ behaviour. There are plenty of reasons why Stella and Magnea might need numbness and seek self-annihilation, but none are actually explored. Understanding and motivation are absolutely necessary to buying the massive betrayal at the heart of this love story – why would one lover betray the other and knowingly place her in grave danger? But by only showing the how and never even attempting to delve into the why, the entire point of this movie is moot. The drug film genre is so clogged with clichés and rote representations that the only question that might make this film and its exhausting 136-minute runtime worthwhile would be to pose the question why!
Why does forgiveness flow so easily between Magnea and Stella, where a missed phone call is forgiven as easily as the most grievous physical, mental and sexual trauma? Why does it take them decades to finally confront the climactic betrayal and how has it never been breached or resolved until adulthood? Talented actresses Elín Sif Halldórsdóttir as Magnea and Eyrún Björk Jakobsdóttir as Stella in their teens, deserve notice for their efforts to establish the bonds that bind and later break between them, but without any support from the script, their choices play out like a cautionary commercial. Even in the haze of heavy drug use, the young women’s relationship doesn’t ring true. No love could ever forgive the unbelievable betrayals revealed in the preposterous, cartoon ending that is only made worse by the “based on a true story” disclaimer tacked onto the end credits. No amount of flashing forward and back can conceal the gaping holes in narrative and plausibility that pervade this emotionally vacant love story that turns out to be just another stylish downward spiral à la Requiem For A Dream.