Written by Diane Tillis
It is rare for a film to create a complex portrait of a child with the same thoughtfulness as a serious portrait of an adult. The Girl is unusual compared to the countless other coming-of-age films is in its depiction of the title character and the events she experiences in one summer.
During the summer of 1981, The Girl tells the story of a ten-year-old girl (Blanca Engström) living in Sweden. She is never named in the film; we can only refer to her as ‘the girl.’ Her family is planning a trip to Africa to volunteer in an international relief program. At the last moment, the program directors say the girl is too young and small to make the trip. The girl is terribly upset that she will not be able to explore the new world. Her parents decide not to cancel their trip, but call the girl’s aunt Anna (Tova Magnusso-Norling) to come live with her for the summer. However, this makes the situation worse for the girl. Anna is lazy, drinks red wine constantly, and would rather be sailing with her boyfriend. The girl ends up doing most of the housework and food preparation herself.
One night, Anna returns home with a bunch of friends. The girl wakes up to the annoying late-night party with several drunken people making a mess in her home. She decides to figure out a way to get rid of her aunt. In a moment of pure genius, especially for a ten-year-old, the girl makes a forged love letter and sends it to Anna’s boyfriend. The letter declares Anna’s love, and desire to go sailing with him. When Anna’s boyfriend calls, flaky Anna decides to leave the girl alone while she indulges herself for a weekend. The weekend getaway gives the girl a moment of peace and freedom. However, the weekend turns into several days. She lies to friends and neighbors about the location of her aunt to maintain her freedom.
The film chronicles several events that are significant to the girl’s coming-of-age story. During the summer, she goes to swimming lessons, but is afraid to jump off the high dive. Two older friends, Tina (Emma Wigfeldt) and her cousin Gisela (Michelle Vistam), force her to do whatever they want including stealing ice cream from Tina’s mother. They trick old men by selling fake lottery tickets to earn some money so Tina can buy makeup. When the old men figure out the scheme, the girl has to give each of them a kiss on the cheek as penitence for their deception. She bonds with a young boy, Ola (Vidar Fors), when they catch tadpoles and watch them grow into frogs. She discovers the feminine aspect of her body after seeing her swimming coach naked. She gets curious and looks it up in a book. The girl experiences fear when a nosy neighbor discovers her secret, but she manages to blackmail him to keep quiet. She is terrified when Ola gets hurt in an accident she caused. The girl watches Tina make a fool of herself in front of a large crowd when she sings and dances to an ABBA song in red lingerie. While walking through a large field, a hot air balloon lands in front of her. She invites the man flying the balloon into her home, which is filthy with dirty dishes and dead plants. In return for her hospitality, he takes the girl for a ride in the balloon. The world shrinks under her, and she sees everything in a new perspective.
The plot is straightforward enough, but the portrait of the girl and her transformation is the focus of the film. Her character matures in delicate ways with each childhood experience. After the hot air balloon ride, the girl cleans up the house and herself. Anna returns only hours before the girl’s family, and acts as if she never left. The parents notice a difference in the girl, but cannot quite explain the differences. Instead, they say she looks ‘bigger.’ While she is still very much herself, she is a more mature girl. Before the summer, she was unromantic, clever, a wimp, and grumpy. After the summer, she is bold, unapologetic, and wiser. At her last swimming lesson, her world comes full circle. Her family is enjoying a picnic, waiting for her to jump off the high dive. Ola appears with a cast on his broken leg, but waves to her with encouragement. She smiles, and jumps off the high dive. Even though the main character is a ten-year-old girl reminiscent of Pippi Longstocking, it is impossible to compact her character in a neat description.
The video aspect ratio is 2.35:1. The film uses natural lighting in every shot. This means some of the scenes will be brighter or darker than normal. However, this gives The Girl strong visual and atmospheric qualities. The frequent close-up shots that focus on the girl also contribute to these qualities. The Director of Photography is Hoyte van Hoytema, who also did a beautiful job on Let the Right One In (2008).
The audio is in Dolby Digital 5.1 with the Swedish language track and English subtitles. There are no additional languages for the dialog, nor are there any additional languages for the subtitles. The audio quality is great with no noticeable problems. The soundtrack complements every scene and enhances the atmospheric quality of the film. The background noises are very subtle, to the point you barely notice them.
There are no special features available on this disc.
The Girl is unusual among the countless coming-of-age films because it focuses on establishing a child character as complex and intriguing. I can only recall a handful of films in which a child character was interesting to me. I think this is a film for adults about children, similar to the way I felt after seeing Where the Wild Things Are (2010). This is Sweden’s Fredrik Edfeldt directorial debut, and I look forward to seeing more of his work in the future. The Girl is another hauntingly beautiful film that would rather tell a rich story than amaze you with computer-generated special effects. I would strongly recommend The Girl to any film enthusiast.