It’s tempting to believe the great writers of children’s literature are ageless souls forever in playtime mode, the world’s harsher realities kept at bay by a boundless imagination that’s the ultimate in noise-canceling technology.
But the opposite is usually true: Author hardships are what actively informed Peter Pan’s fight to stay young, Charlie’s negotiating the Chocolate Factory, the wizarding trials of Harry Potter, and plenty of other classics.
Sweden’s kid-lit queen Astrid Lindgren, who died in 2002, didn’t create self-possessed 9-year-old supergirl Pippi Longstocking simply because a child lifting horses and outsmarting adults sounded nifty (although it does). According to “Becoming Astrid,” a revealing early-years biopic from Danish filmmaker and avowed Lindgren-ophile Pernille Fischer Christensen, one emotionally turbulent time in Lindgren’s young life might very well have fortified for her why perseverance and strength should stand out among the traits of her many pint-sized protagonists.
After a brief framing device dramatizing the older Lindgren receiving inquisitive fan mail from adoring children, we meet Astrid (a wonderfully expressive Alba August) at 16 as a distracted, goofball nuisance in her small town’s religious farming community, where her churchwarden father (Magnus Krepper) and strict mother (Maria Bonnevie) run a tight household of manners, hard work and rules. Church is boring, a school dance is a performance opportunity for carefree flailing about, and elder hypocrisy is worth pushing back against, or maybe even screaming into the night about.
When Astrid’s writing lands her an intern position at the local newspaper, she believes she’s found an ideal outlet for not just her talents, but transforming into a free-thinking, modern adult woman of the 1920s. Her editor and boss, kind-faced family friend Blomberg (Henrik Rafaelson), a married-but-getting-divorced man with several children, believes in her abilities, too, giving Astrid room to report stories and contribute pieces. He’s also attracted to her, though, and while Astrid’s response, as depicted here, is consensual, their inevitable affair hardly comes off as romantic or wise.
Getting pregnant at 18 wipes the promise right off Astrid’s face. The era’s conventions and patriarchal Swedish law dictate a limited range of options that tie her to Blomberg — who wants to marry her but needs to hide the out-of-wedlock child from his suing spouse — and require giving birth inside more liberal-minded Denmark. Astrid wants nothing more than to raise Lars, whom she places with a Danish caretaker (Trine Dyrholm) specializing in the left-behind children of teenage Swedish mothers. Yet being stuck in Stockholm making a meager living as a secretary, saving for trips to Copenhagen to see her son, and dealing with her family’s shame and Blomberg’s court woes test every ounce of resolve she has.
For anyone hoping to see this pressurized, fitful time in a monumental writer’s leavened with examples of her tale-spinning talents, Christensen’s coming-of-age slice, written with Kim Fupz Aakeson, isn’t that kind of greatness-awaits biopic. Occasionally we hear in voiceover one of the fan letters read by a child, but Christensen saves Astrid’s storytelling for when it counts, in a crucial scene at the end that suggests this special power as a precious, bonding, life-affirming thing.
Up till then, under the claustrophobic framing of Erik Molberg Hansen’s cinematography and the mostly melodrama-free direction, Astrid’s hardship of thwarted ambition and disrupted motherhood is presented as both what becomes a writer, and what could easily un-become one, too. The film’s occasional flatness of tone isn’t always well-used — these may be the raw materials for a classic Hollywood weepie, but sometimes you want to see filmmaking, not a camera pointed in the general direction of who’s talking. Yet as “Becoming Astrid” wends its way, it’s also sometimes a sly biopic dare — not just, can you see the looming legend in a single unwed mother scraping by? But also, would you have thought to look?
In Swedish and Danish with English subtitles
Running time: 2 hours, 3 minutes
Playing: Starts Nov. 23, Laemmle Royal, West Los Angeles