“Simon and the Oaks” is a two-hour theatrical feature that has the kind of emotional and storytelling reach regularly found these days only in cable TV miniseries. It’s a warmly done family and personal drama that seems to cover familiar territory, but only up to a point and very much in its own way.
Given that “Simon” follows the fortunes of two interlinked Swedish families from 1939 to 1952, it’s not surprising that the source material is a bestselling novel, in this case one by Marianne Fredricksson that has been translated into 25 languages and sold more than 4 million copies worldwide.
Because of the time frame and the European setting, it’s also to be expected that the Holocaust will be a factor in the plot, along with the other usual dramatic suspects, such as young love, conflicts with parents and missed opportunities for emotional connection.
But “Simon” didn’t get to be a major success at the Swedish box office and the recipient of a record 13 nominations for the Guldbagge Awards, Sweden’s Oscars, by being strictly business as usual.
Rather, as directed by Lisa Ohlin from a script by Marnie Blok, “Simon” provides unexpected textures and twists for its story, and supplies so many dramatic situations and scenes that by the time it’s over we feel we’ve lived through it along with its characters. The emotion is plentiful here, but the film rarely hits situations harder than it should, thanks in part to expert acting that resulted in three Guldbagge nominations and two victories.
“Simon and the Oaks” starts in the summer of 1939, introducing 9-year-old Simon (Jonatan Wachter) as a youth who spends his happiest times fantasizing about exotic adventures in a treehouse built on what he feels is a magical oak tree that speaks to him, and him alone. Simon’s exasperated father Erik (Stefan Godicke) wonders why his son isn’t like other kids, why he has no interest in fighting or working with his hands like his hardscrabble dad.
The boy’s mother, Karin (Helen Sjoholm), is more sympathetic, both to Simon’s differentness and his desire to attend an elite school in nearby Gothenburg that his father fears will expose him to nothing but rich kids and fops.
It’s at the school that Simon makes fast friends with Isak (Karl Martin Eriksson), a Jewish boy whose wealthy father, Ruben (Jan Josef Liefers), has fled from Germany with his family because of the Nazi rise to power.
Simon is in awe of everything about Isak’s cultured and artistic home, from the elevator it takes to reach the family apartment to all the volumes that Ruben, who owns a rare book shop, has at his beck and call.
Then, as everyone fears, the Second World War arrives, and it does unexpected things to these two families, which otherwise would have had only the most cursory interaction with each other. Allegiances shift and reshape, psychological dynamics get more intricate, questions of identity take on increasing importance.
Once the war ends, Simon and Isak’s stories continue, though the characters end up being played by adult actors (Bill Skarsgard, Stellan’s son, takes over Simon, Karl Linnertorp becomes Isak).
One of the most involving aspects of “Simon and the Oaks” is its sense that even though the war was over, there was no real recovery for the survivors, no going back for damaged people in a damaged world. These characters do the best they can, grappling with the paradoxical sense that searching for who we are can take us even further from ourselves.
‘Simon and the Oaks’
No MPAA rating
Running time: 2 hours, 2 minutes
Playing: At the Landmark, West Los Angeles
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